To: "Jordi Reyes-Montblanc"
Subject: Spectator today
Date: Tue, 27 Nov 2007 10:25:49
By Melissa Repko
PUBLISHED NOVEMBER 27, 2007
The New York City Planning Commission approved the rezoning needed for Columbia to move forward with its Manhattanville expansion plans on Monday.
Though the commission voted in favor of Columbia’s 197-c rezoning plan, it made several modifications, including the elimination of two of the planned academic-research buildings along Broadway, the reduction of permitted building heights, and the requirement of a more open, free-flowing campus landscape.
The vote was part of the Uniform Land Use Review Procedure, the city’s public-review process. In the next and final step of the process, the City Council will vote on the plan.
In addition to approving the 197-c plan, the commission approved Community Board 9’s 197-a plan for the area’s development. Yet while the 197-a as written by CB9 covers all of Manhattanville, the commission approved only the provisions dealing with the area outside the expansion zone.
Commissioner Karen Phillips cast the only vote against the 197-c plan, and commissioner Irwin Cantor abstained from voting on 197-c. The 197-a plan passed without any dissenting votes.
Columbia also announced on Monday that it would build nearly 1,000 housing units for employees, in an effort to offset the increased demand for housing that the expansion will generate. In addition, the University agreed to contribute $4 million to legal-aid services for Manhattanville tenants, including protection from unlawful harassment or eviction.
The commitment comes in addition to a deal struck with Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer to provide $20 million for an affordable housing trust fund. University officials said Monday that, between that money and additional capital it will be used to leverage, the fund is expected to be able to construct around 1,100 affordable housing units.
The meeting featured frequent audience interjections and chanting, despite police attempts to quiet the crowd. Because of the small room, there were more attendants than seats. When people standing were told to leave, expansion opponents became vocal and refused to relocate.
Even as Commission Chair Amanda Burden opened the session, loud chanting continued and persisted throughout the meeting.
Echoing her comments released weeks before the meeting and raising her voice above audience interjections, Burden said she believes the 197-c and 197-a plans are not opposites. “I believe that the modifications that we will be voting on today substantially reconcile the differences between the two,” she said.
After a lengthy speech during which many audience members speculated out loud that she would vote yes, Phillips voted against the 197-c plan. “Though the University’s expansion is good for the city of New York and would provide an economic engine for the communities in upper Manhattan and jobs and business growth, the immediate neighborhood ... should not take the blow that leads to economic, cultural, and social damage,” Phillips said before casting her dissenting vote.
Cantor commended Burden for her “evenhanded shepherding” and “for gracefully enduring the most personal, vindictive, invective comments I have ever heard.” Yet he abstained from the 197-c vote, citing concerns about the use of eminent domain.
“I am of the belief that government intervention should only occur in the most extraordinary circumstances,” Cantor said. “I am not persuaded that such circumstances exist in this instance ... We pride ourselves on our free-enterprise spirit, yet the state steps in on behalf on one party and in what I consider a manifestly punitive way. It’s just not right.”
After the meeting, Reverend Reginald Williams of the Coalition for the Future of Manhattanville, a pro-expansion group organized by lobbyists for Columbia, said he was pleased by the commission’s vote but disappointed by the audience’s rowdy behavior. “You can disagree without being disagreeable,” he said. He criticized several audience members’ references to racial incidents of the past, saying, “Bringing memories and painful experiences of a bygone era is not beneficial for anybody.”
Williams spoke about the “silent majority,” explaining that he believes most agree with a combination of Columbia and CB9’s plan. “People who holler or protest visibly often get the press,” he said. “It’s like the squeaky wheel gets the oil ... We could bring out a crowd, but would the crowd change the merits of the proposals?”
“I am not surprised that both plans as modified were approved, however I am very pleased that commissioner Phillips did vote against Columbia’s plans, even with its modifications, in support of the community,” said Patricia Jones, who was recently nominated as the next CB9 chair. “Clearly we would have preferred a ‘no’ vote from commissioner Cantor as well, but many times in voting, an abstention is effectively a ‘no’ ... We’ve got quite a bit of work to do as both plans move forward to City Council.”
Nellie Hester-Bailey of the Harlem Tenants Council condemned the commission’s vote in a press conference after the meeting’s conclusion. “You are dealing with the lives of working class black and Latino families, those families who have the least. Those families who contribute to the vibrancy, the economic and ethnic vibrancy, of this city,” she said.
Bailey said that the vote will only strengthen community efforts in opposing Columbia’s expansion. “We are here to stay,” she said. “We will stay and we will be at the City Council in even larger numbers, with an even stronger message, with an even stronger challenge.”
In a press release, University President Lee Bollinger thanked the commission for its vote and its leadership. “We look forward to continuing to work with our neighbors, City Council members, and other local elected representatives to ensure that the people who live and work in West Harlem and all of New York continue to benefit as the home of a world center of academic excellence,” he said.
Melissa Repko can be reached at email@example.com.