Sunday, September 23, 2007

Helping Columbia, and West Harlem

N.Y./Region Opinions

The City

Helping Columbia, and West Harlem
Published: September 23, 2007

It is an undeniable fact that Columbia University needs to expand. Without new facilities, Columbia’s educational and research missions will falter, and it will find it increasingly hard to attract the best academic talent or even retain the talent it has. And without a vibrant Columbia, New York City itself will suffer.

But Columbia — which wants to build as many as 18 academic and research buildings and campus housing on 17 acres in West Harlem — needs the concurrence of others who call the area home. And that has been a tough sell.

The larger neighborhood owes its character to generations of mostly black and Hispanic residents, who raised families, built small businesses and otherwise invested in their community. And while Columbia has worked hard to accommodate residents, including finding replacement housing for those who would be displaced as it builds, more is needed to reassure the neighbors, particularly those who have not been impressed by the school’s promises of thousands of new jobs or by its deepening ties to the community.

The city, recognizing the rift as it decides how best to proceed with the Columbia plan, is wisely taking a good look at a proposal by Scott Stringer, the Manhattan borough president. Mr. Stringer, working with Community Board 9, has suggested protecting the scale and character of the neighborhood by creating a specially zoned district, modeled after the Hell’s Kitchen/Clinton Hill district west of Midtown Manhattan. The district would run from the Hudson River to Convent and Bradhurst Avenues, and from 125th to 145th Street. The heights and density of new buildings would be capped, small businesses would get breaks on retail space, residential builders would be required to include affordable housing, and renters would be protected from harassment by property owners who try to push them out.

Even those who live outside the university’s expansion area fear the spillover effects of new growth that could push them out, a prospect already faced by residents in other parts of the city where rents have risen with gentrification. Mr. Stringer’s office counted 200 so-called “soft sites,” where under current rules, developers could build towers far taller than anything in the vicinity. Rezoning would certainly help.

Columbia’s efforts to win over its neighbors have been hampered by the reputation for aloof detachment it helped create a generation ago and has been trying to live down ever since. The tensions were on full display last month when Community Board 9 met and voted against the plan. Local heroes, including former Mayor David Dinkins, were soundly booed for endorsing the Columbia plan.

Early next month, the Planning Commission is to hold a public hearing before an expected vote in November. The plan then goes to the City Council for approval. A compromise, with the special zone guarantees Mr. Stringer suggests, could give Columbia the room it needs to remain a first-class university and the neighborhood residents the assurances they need that their lives will not suffer.

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