Saturday, November 24, 2007

Columbia's $6 Billion Expansion Likely to Win Approval From NYC

Updated: New York, Nov 24 12:28
London, Nov 24 17:28
Tokyo, Nov 25 02:28

Columbia's $6 Billion Expansion Likely to Win Approval From NYC
By Brian Kladko

Nov. 23 (Bloomberg) -- Columbia University's $6 billion expansion plan in Harlem may win approval from a New York City panel next week, five years after the school began an effort to double in size.

The city's Planning Commission is scheduled to vote Nov. 26 on the school's rezoning request, which has aroused opposition from some residents and business owners. Columbia wants to transform 17 acres north of its existing campus in New York City with academic buildings, research labs and dormitories.

Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts; Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut; Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island; and the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia all are pursuing major expansions, largely for research labs to attract federal money, professors and prestige. As Columbia seeks city approval, the commission will also rule on a competing plan by a community board that says the school would wipe out blue-collar jobs and homes.

``Columbia ultimately will get nearly everything it's asking for,'' said Julia Vitullo-Martin, a senior fellow specializing in development at the Manhattan Institute, a New York nonprofit whose members analyze public issues. She said the neighborhood is underdeveloped, with good access to transportation, ``and New York needs Columbia. It's an important international university and a major employer.''

Columbia needlessly generated animosity in the neighborhood, Vitullo-Martin said in a telephone interview. The community board, some residents and business owners say the university must do more to preserve jobs and homes in the Manhattanville section of the western edge of Harlem.

Legal Challenge Possible

Even if Columbia gets the rezoning it seeks, some residents vow to continue fighting the university. Tom DeMott, a member of Coalition to Preserve Community, a group opposed to Columbia's plans, raised the possibility of lawsuits over environmental threats, or legal challenges to the possible use of eminent domain where the government has the right to acquire property.

``We have all kinds of things that we're prepared and willing to do to make this plan not go through if they don't compromise the way they should, and if the elected officials sell us out,'' DeMott said.

``Columbia has got a good case for its expansion,'' said the Reverend Earl Kooperkamp, rector of St. Mary's Episcopal Church, near the expansion zone. ``However, the neighborhood is historically low-income -- a disempowered, disenfranchised neighborhood. We want to see what we can do to change that.''

Kooperkamp said the community board's plan treats Manhattanville like a multifaceted village. Columbia's plan, he said, envisions the area as a ``plantation.''
``It's one crop, one owner,'' he said.

Five Building

Columbia plans to begin construction of five buildings in about a year, assuming it gets zoning approval: a science center, new homes for the schools of business, arts and international affairs, and a 600-seat auditorium, said Robert Kasdin, senior executive vice president of the school.

When the expansion is complete in 2030, the school expects to have 19,000 graduate students, a 27 percent increase, said Joseph A. Ienuso, executive vice president of facilities.

Columbia said it now has 326 square feet of buildings for each student, less than the amount of space at Harvard, Yale, Princeton University in New Jersey and some other schools.

``There's a growing recognition that the absence of space was beginning to threaten Columbia University's ability to remain a great global university,'' Kasdin said.

Columbia has won support from Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer. The city's Planning Department has recommended modifications to both Columbia's and the community board's plans, said Rachaele Raynoff, a department spokeswoman. The department's director, Amanda Burden, won't comment further on the issue until the Nov. 26 vote, Raynoff said.

City Council

Burden, an appointee of Mayor Michael Bloomberg, also chairs the 13-member Planning Commission, whose recommendation will be forwarded to the City Council for final approval.
The mayor is also founder and majority owner of Bloomberg LP, the parent company of Bloomberg News.

University officials say the expansion depends on the construction of a vast basement, in some places seven stories deep. Kasdin said the subterranean space will contain unsightly infrastructure and services, such as energy plants, trash removal and deliveries.

``We can create an active street life that will benefit the university and surrounding communities,'' Kasdin said.

Columbia says it needs to raze most of the buildings in the development zone, now dominated by warehouses and auto repair shops. Two storage companies and a gas station have refused to sell their property to the school. Columbia has asked the state to consider whether the use of eminent domain would be appropriate for taking those properties, if necessary.

`Hammer to My Head'

``I'm not going to negotiate with a proverbial gun or hammer to my head,'' said Nick Sprayregen, 44, owner of Tuck-It-Away, a self-storage company. He said he is the largest property owner in the expansion zone, with five buildings there.

The community board, a 50-member body appointed by the borough president, objects to the height and bulk of Columbia's proposed buildings, said Jordi Reyes-Montblanc, the board's chairman. Columbia officials say the tallest buildings will be 260 feet, a bit shorter than the neighborhood's highest structures.

The board voted 32 to 2 against recommending Columbia's request to rezone the area from light manufacturing to mixed use. Reyes-Montblanc said some board members also expressed concern that excavation for the basement would result in noise, fumes and the scattering of rats and roaches, and had doubts about its long-term safety, he said.

The underground space symbolizes what some residents say will be the destruction of the neighborhood.

``Sure, things happen, the world changes and all the rest,'' said DeMott, the opponent of the expansion. ``But it doesn't have to be such a dramatic change, where everything is just swept away.''

To contact the reporter on this story: Brian Kladko in Boston at .
Last Updated: November 23, 2007 00:04 EST

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