From: "Anne Michaud"
To: "J Reyes-Montblanc"
crain's new york business.com
Columbia plan gains momentum
November 24. 2007 11:14PM
By: Anne Michaud
City largely accepts Harlem campus, but local issues simmer
Columbia University's controversial plan to rezone 17 acres in West Harlem for an arts, business and science campus is zooming through the approval process virtually unaltered.
The City Planning Commission meets today for a vote on the university's application, the last step before the proposal moves to the City Council for a final vote. The commission is expected to deny community requests that it block the use of eminent domain and that it tie project approval to goodies for the neighborhood.
Columbia and local leaders are at the negotiating table now over a community benefits agreement--a package of jobs, housing, educational opportunities and other sweeteners intended to offset the loss of small businesses and residences.
The outcome of the talks is crucial to when and how the City Council votes.
The rezoning effort is the culmination of more than four years of work by Columbia, which has been buying up land and properties in the neighborhood of the campus-to-be and now owns more than 70%. The university wants to spend $7 billion to build as many as 18 towers with classrooms, offices, student housing and laboratory space, which will give it the facilities to compete with other world-class institutions.
Simmering race and class frustrations could still erupt if negotiations over the development don't go well. With this in mind, City Council members with political ambitions are hoping to put the matter to a vote before the holidays.
"Politically, this has been a hot potato," observes one insider. "Why do you want to start a new political year with a big land-use fight in a community of color?"
There is little doubt, however, that the university will emerge with what it wants.
In her written recommendation, Planning Commissioner Amanda Burden acknowledges that the community and Columbia have submitted "two competing land-use plans." She says that common ground has been established--notably in protecting the supply of affordable housing, intended to stop the displacement of Harlem families, hundreds of which have already left the area. A three-bedroom apartment rents for $1,500 a month now, up from $300 in 2003.
Funds for housing
At the request of Borough President Scott Stringer, Columbia has agreed to endow a $20 million Manhattanville Neighborhood Preservation Fund, which, together with other measures, would preserve or create 1,139 housing units. Without such a plan, planners estimate, 1,318 units could be lost, putting 3,293 residents at risk of displacement.
The West Harlem Local Development Corp., which is negotiating the community benefits agreement with Columbia, is said to be asking for another $100 million in housing funds.
City planners want Columbia to make other minor changes to the proposed complex: reducing the height of two buildings, widening an entrance to the campus, and adding trees and public seating. But ultimately, Ms. Burden sides with the university.
"The [community] plan promotes an irregular pattern of development, which works against a coordinated growth strategy," she says. "One of the goals of [Columbia's] plan is `to move away from past ad hoc growth ... and instead create a widely thought-out, predictable plan.' "
Jordi Reyes-Montblanc, president of Community Board 9, predicts that the Planning Department's effort to divide the proverbial baby in half "is going to look more like butchery than ceremony."
Mr. Reyes-Montblanc also objects to the construction of a central, below-grade space--referred to as a bathtub--in which Columbia would build the mechanical works, loading docks and parking to serve its buildings.
He says the bathtub poses a terrorism risk, and he wants Columbia to disclose whether there would be biohazardous experiments conducted underground.
Ms. Burden calls the bathtub "one of the most forward-thinking and significant elements" of the plan, in part because it would allow for more open space aboveground.
Playing beneath the surface arguments are tensions stemming from Columbia's long history of contentious relations with members of the mostly minority community surrounding its West Side campus. University officials and their lobbyist consultants have largely been able to mute angry comparisons to past injustices. Sunshine Sachs & Associates, Bill Lynch Associates and former Mayor David Dinkins are among those advising Columbia.
They are talking to City Council members who represent Harlem, Robert Jackson and Inez Dickens, hoping to satisfy any concerns the officials have about the project so it can move quickly through the council. Neither councilmember returned calls for comment.
City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, who may run for mayor in 2009, likely does not want a racially divisive fight on her hands, especially if she ends up running against City Comptroller William Thompson, who is African-American.
After the City Council votes, the university must submit a general project plan to the Empire State Development Corp., which has the final say over whether properties can be taken by eminent domain, against an owner's will.