Monday, July 09, 2007

Columbia Expansion Plan Debate Will Intensify
By ELIOT BROWNSpecial to the SunJuly 9, 2007

Debate about Columbia University's planned 17-acre expansion is heating up this week, with the Ivy League school and the project's opponents pushing dueling land-use proposals for West Harlem.

Columbia's $5.8 billion plan entered the city's public review process late last month, a seven-month window during which the university must win the approval of the City Council and the city's Planning Commission. The university will plug its plan at a meeting with the Planning Commission today and is holding a community meeting on Thursday, at the request of officials and community leaders, a Columbia spokeswoman said.

In an effort to curb the impact of an expansion, members of Community Board 9 are pushing for approval of their land-use guidelines for West Harlem, called the "197-a" plan, for which a public hearing is scheduled tonight.

Central to the 197-a plan is an attempt to block the taking of private land by eminent domain, the potential use of which in West Harlem has riled critics of the project and has been steadfastly and unanimously opposed by Community Board 9. While Columbia owns most of the land within the campus expansion footprint, it has asked New York's Empire State Development Corporation to declare the area "blighted" to clear the way for eminent domain acquisition of the remaining lots. "This is a land grab, pure and simple," a co-founder of the Harlem Tenants Council, Nellie Bailey , said. "They have properties elsewhere, they have land elsewhere; they have an endowment of what I understand is $6 billion."

The 197-a plan, if adopted in full, would limit the scale of Columbia's expansion, according to an environmental analysis released last month. Due to development restrictions, the analysis said Columbia could develop up to about 30% of its desired 5 million to 6 million square feet of new construction.

A spokeswoman for Columbia, La-Verna Fountain, said the university had already adopted some of the recommendations of the 197-a plan, including staggered building heights and the preservation of some existing buildings.

Community leaders acknowledge that the plan would restrict the size of the university's expansion, but say that by taking eminent domain off the table, it would maintain private property rights and preserve the jobs of residents.

"It's the community-backed plan, it's the community-based plan," the chairman of Community Board 9, Jorge Reyes-Montblanc, said.

Many other Ivy League universities have recently completed or are planning large expansions, and Columbia has said the new campus development is necessary for it to compete for top talent, both among academics and students. Included within its plan is space for biomedical facilities, the business school, and student housing.

A vote on the expansion and the 197-a plan from Community Board 9 is expected in late August, though the board's recommendation is non-binding.

The state expects to complete the blight study, a required step for the use of eminent domain, some time this summer.

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