Sunday, April 29, 2007

Hearing Monday on Columbia expansion

New York City

Hearing Monday on Columbia expansion
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By Magdalene Perez
Special to amNewYork
April 29, 2007, 3:40 PM EDT

West Harlem residents will have a chance to voice their opinions Monday night on a new plan to preserve the neighborhood in the face of Columbia University's impending $7 billion expansion.

The zoning plan calls for building height limits, affordable housing and anti-harassment legislation to prevent low-rent residents from being pressured out. The proposal by Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer follows vocal community opposition to Columbia's 17-acre development proposal for the area north of its Morningside Heights campus.

"This is aimed at making sure the existing character of the neighborhood is preserved in the long term," said Eric Pugatch, a spokesman for Stringer, who will present the plan at 6:30 tonight at the Community Board 9 office on 125th Street. "The borough president supports Columbia's expansion, but we want to make sure the community is not overrun."

The special zoning district would span from Convent Avenue to the Hudson River between 125th and 145th streets, a much broader area than the site Columbia hopes to convert to a mix of academic buildings, research labs and university housing. The goal is to protect the entire area, rather than focus narrowly on Columbia's proposed development site, Pugatch said.

Public approval is essential to pushing the plan toward legislation, said Community Board 9 Chairman Jordi Reyes-Montblanc, who stressed that the proposal is "not a finished product." If the Community Board approves it, the proposal would then be reviewed by the Department of City Planning.

The Columbia development plan is not finalized. Originally presented in April 2004, the university is completing an environmental impact study. According to plans released on the school's Web site, the university hopes to build about half the development by 2015. Columbia's office of community affairs could not be reached for comment.

Those who oppose the expansion say the development will drive up rents and push out long-time residents and businesses. Many fear the university will use eminent domain to claim property and others have raised questions about the safety of the school's proposed research labs, whose use the school has not yet disclosed.

But not every neighbor is opposed to the expansion. Several Harlem residents said Friday they believe an influx of young people would help the neighborhood. "There will be less delinquency, less drugs," said Jose Perez, who has lived in West Harlem for 10 years.

Arnie E. Cox Sr., a lifelong Harlem resident and former Columbia employee, said he wouldn't mind the university's expansion if the institution agrees not to displace people through eminent domain.

"They should give you an option," Cox said. "Instead of just pushing it down people's throats."But others are pessimistic about whether new regulations could stem the tide of gentrification.

"The only way you're going to keep the character of the neighborhood is to keep the neighbors in the neighborhood," said Vaughn Cameron, another lifelong Harlem resident. "And unfortunately, that's not happening."

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