Wednesday, December 19, 2007

City Council approves Columbia expansion

crain's new york

City Council approves Columbia expansion
The council squeezed approval into the final week before the Christmas holiday, in an effort to dampen a bitter community battle from stretching into 2008.
December 19. 2007 3:28PMBy: Anne Michaud

The City Council on Wednesday approved Columbia University's controversial plan to rezone 17 acres in West Harlem for an arts, business and science campus, over increasing protest.

The council squeezed approval into the final week before the Christmas holiday, in an effort to dampen a bitter battle in a community of color stretching out into the New Year, as Crain’s reported in a Nov. 25 story.

“After working with Columbia University, Community Board 9, community advocates and local elected officials, we’ve come up with a plan that will both preserve and improve areas of West Harlem,” Council Speaker Christine Quinn said in a statement.

Two more members of the West Harlem Local Development Corp. – a board chosen to represent the community in talks with Columbia – quit Wednesday in protest over the rushed process. The LDC has been negotiating a package of housing, jobs and education benefits to compensate the Manhattanville neighborhood for the loss of residences and businesses, including a tentative $150 million benefits agreement. Details of the agreement were not finalized before the Council’s vote on Wednesday.

Three LDC board members resigned last month in order to criticize the secret negotiations, which they say were designed to buy the community’s acquiescence. People who remain on the board have promised to keep the negotiations confidential.

Columbia’s plan marks the culmination of more than four years of work by the university, which has been buying up land and properties in the neighborhood of the campus-to-be and now owns more than 70% of the area. 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.

Despite community opposition, the university has completed the land-use approval process with most of its plan intact, making only a few concessions. At the request of Borough President Scott Stringer, Columbia agreed to endow a $20 million Manhattanville Neighborhood Preservation Fund, which, together with other measures, would preserve or create 1,139 housing units. The school will also provide $4 million to fund an anti-harassment legal assistance program to address indirect residential displacement.

Next, 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. However, that may not be necessary. The three business owners who were refusing to sell to Columbia resumed talks with the university last Friday.

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