The City Planning Commission listened to testimonies about Columbia’s and Community Board 9’s rezoning plans at a public hearing Wednesday.
The meeting was another step in the seven-month Uniform Land Use Review Procedure, the city’s mandatory period of review before Columbia’s plan for expansion can be either approved or rejected. At the meeting, Columbia and CB9 representatives presented their respective plans and then were questioned by commissioners. The presentations were followed by three-minute testimonies of dozens of community members and political spokespeople.
University President Lee Bollinger kicked off Columbia’s presentation of the University’s 197-c rezoning plan, calling the school “desperate for space.”
“We can do this in a mixed, diverse environment intellectually with concerns for teaching, and it could be a stunning success for everyone, especially for New York City and Harlem,” Bollinger said.
Senior Executive Vice President Robert Kasdin echoed Bollinger’s sentiments and, during a 15-minute presentation, he spent a substantial amount of time describing the necessity of having a below grade infrastructure, dubbed the “bathtub.” Calling off plans for the bathtub is one the demands CB9 made when it voted to reject Columbia’s proposal this summer.
In a question-and-answer session, City Planning Commissioners contested the University’s commitment to providing affordable housing for residents who would be displaced.
“Not only would I expect the housing would be the same or better quality, but I would expect the rents would be the same,” said commissioner Angela Battaglia, who also questioned whether it was necessary for Columbia to build buildings as tall as it currently plans.
Kasdin also took heat from commissioner Irwin Cantor, who said that by threatening to use eminent domain on businesses that refuse to sell, the University is “holding the owner hostage.”
After a divisive back and forth, Kasdin emphasized that he believes CB9 and Columbia’s rezoning plans are “increasingly converging.” “Columbia University and Community Board have a long history of disagreeing and then finding convergence,” he said.But CB9 chair Jordi Reyes-Montblanc, hammered the University for not focusing on the parts of the community that will be affected the most.
“I don’t hear an emphasis on West Harlem,” he said, getting the first applause of the meeting. “This 964 acres, this is our community. This is the community that is going to be affected by the 17 acres that Columbia is going to develop. ... It astonishes me, and I hate to say that, that we are being sacrificed for the benefit of the city.”
Pratt Institute urban planner Ron Shiffman presented CB9’s 197-a, drawing a contrast between the way it protects the community and the way he believe Columbia’s 197-c does not. While he criticized the “bathtub” and urged the commission to reject the University’s proposal, he said the board is not rejecting it entirely.
“It [CB9] is not opposed to Columbia University’s expansion, but it is opposed to the way Columbia proposed to expand,” he said, expressing a sentiment that paralleled the board’s decision to reject the proposal unless certain conditions were met.
Many of the testimonies repeated Shiffman’s comments that the “bathtub” and biohazard labs could endanger the community, leading to environmental or chemical disaster.
Cantor hinted that Shiffman was acting as an alarmist with these statements. “I find it very difficult to just accept your statements without the support of experts,” he said.Testimonies brought out strong opinions for and against the Manhattanville expansion. Dennis Palmer of Madame Alexander Doll Company said that although he was resistant to the plan at first, he has been impressed by the University’s professionalism.
“What is being proposed by Columbia is bigger than any one of us in this room. It is good for this society,” he said, emphasizing the medical strides that could be made and cures that could be found if University researchers were given the proper space.
But Eric Washington, author of Manhattanville, Old Heart of West Harlem, stressed the community character that Columbia’s expansion will sweep away. “Despite the many public relations claims of preserving the neighborhood’s historic character, this plan seems a sure method for chloroforming the neighborhood,” he said.
The hearing comes the week after Borough President Scott Stringer voted to approve Columbia’s plan, in conjunction with a promise by the University to devote $20 million to establishing an affordable housing fund, and $11 million for the West Harlem Waterfront Park. The City Planning Commission will announce their vote on the Manhattanville project at the end of November.
Back on campus, members of the Student Coalition on Expansion and Gentrification gathered on the sundial for a symbolic delivery of demands to Bollinger’s office in Low Library. At half past noon, holding brightly colored signs, they marched up the steps changing “Harlem is not for sale!”
The group was shepherded by its Student Development and Activities adviser Walter Rodriguez and SDA head Kevin Shollenberger, who made sure to keep rowdiness to an absolute minimum as they followed about 20 SCEG members into Low. Once there, a core group of about five students entered an office and handed its list of demands to a secretary, then politely exited the building.
SCEG’s list of demands is an exact copy of the 10 demands drafted by Community Board in late August. CB9 voted to reject Columbia’s proposed expansion plans unless these demands are met—among them is a withdrawal of the proposal for eminent domain use, a withdrawal of the proposal to build the seven-story below grade bathtub, and various other requests that would make the 197-c compliant with the 197-a.
In addition, SCEG demanded a meeting with Bollinger, Senior Executive Vice President Robert Kasdin, or Executive Vice President for Government and Community Affairs Maxine Griffith. According to SCEG leader Andrew Lyubarsky, CC ’09, this event served to mark the beginning of this year’s campaign to fundamentally change Columbia’s expansion plans.