Thursday, December 13, 2007

City Council Members Hold Hearing on Manhattanville Rezoning Proposals

City Council Members Hold Hearing on Manhattanville Rezoning Proposals
By Betsy Morais

Columbia and Community Board 9 representatives made their cases for alternative Manhattanville zoning proposals before a packed crowd at a City Council hearing Wednesday morning.

Two Council committees, the Zoning & Franchises committee and the Planning, Dispositions & Concessions committee, held the joint hearing in anticipation of next month’s City Council vote on Columbia 197-c and Community Board 9’s 197-a. The vote will be the final step in the Uniform Land Use Review Procedure, a mandatory public review process. If the University’s 197-c passes, it will move forward with its project to build a new campus in Manhattanville.

President Lee Bollinger presented Columbia’s 197-c plan, arguing that the proposed expansion will benefit the city.

“Columbia is critical to New York City. …The relationship between creativity, talent, and commitments of great universities to cities is one of the most important elements of the vitality of a city,” Bollinger said in his introduction of the Columbia expansion project to the council.
Maxine Griffith, vice president for government and community affairs, former New York City Mayor David Dinkins, and Senior Executive Vice President Robert Kasdin also represented Columbia.

Outgoing CB9 chair Jordi Reyes-Montblanc spoke in support of the board’s 197-a plan, a framework which aims to protect the community while allowing it to grow. Aspects of the 197-a have been incorporated into the altered version of the 197-c, but modifications of the New York City Planning Commission seem to favor the University plan.

Last month, the City Planning Commission approved both plans—but only approved the 197-a for areas outside of the expansion zone. It eliminated two of the planned academic research buildings along Broadway, reduced permitted building heights, and made requirements for a more open, free-flowing campus landscape. Reyes-Montblanc characterized the modified plans as insufficient in reconciling their differences.

Pat Jones, chair of CB9’s 197-a committee, called for a more comprehensive solution to the affordable housing conflict, higher environmental standards, landmark designations, and a clear statement of opposition to Columbia’s potential use of eminent domain.

City Councilman Robert Jackson, D-Washington Heights, and City Councilwoman Inez Dickens, D-Harlem, raised questions about what Columbia has done to meet the needs of the community, particularly regarding affordable housing.Kasdin explained that the University is committed to providing housing for residents in Manhattanville, especially for those in the CB9 district.

Although City Council’s vote will solely address the rezoning of the area and will not address the potential use of eminent domain, Council members raised the issue repeatedly. “Don’t trust Columbia University. …Their history has shown that they cannot be trusted,” said Councilman Charles Barron, D-Brooklyn, receiving cheers from the packed chamber.

Zoning & Franchises subcommittee Chair Tony Avella, D-Queens, continually had to subdue the crowd. “I remind everybody—no hissing, no booing, no yelling out, no taunts,” he said to the crowd of West Harlem, many of whom held up “Stop Columbia” flyers.

Kasdin expressed confidence in the University’s ability to reach solutions with property owners in the footprint of the plan, since Columbia has already made 37 agreements with local businesses and only three remain.

Over 90 people gave testimony after both sides presented their plans, alternating between speakers for and against Columbia’s plan.

“We do not need a plan that has the destruction of the existing community at its core, that will continue to diminish housing for our people, create fewer jobs for residents than it eliminates, bring us potential environmental hazards, irreversibly alter our diverse socio-economic fabric, and disrespect our historical and architectural integrity,” said longtime community activist and Coalition to Preserve Community member, Tom Kappner.

Others stood up for Columbia’s expansion plan, including members of the Coalition for the Future of Manhattanville. The Coalition was created by Bill Lynch Associates, a lobbyist firm that Columbia hired.

Coalition member Reverend Reginald Williams explained that critics of the University’s plan mischaracterize the true sentiments of the neighborhood. He said he would rather see the University develop Manhattanville than have another developer build a slew of luxury condominiums.

Robbie Cohen, second-year class president of the College of Physicians and Surgeons, submitted a statement of support. “We believe, frankly, that the good that will almost undoubtedly come from this 21st century research campus is essentially limitless in potential. …Sincere concern for the quality of life of their future neighbors has satisfied us that this compromise is one that is principled and necessary,” the statement read.

Echoing concerns raised by council members about eminent domain, Nick Sprayregen—the largest property owner in the footprint of Columbia’s plan—and his lawyer, Norman Siegel entreated the council to take a stance on the issue. Sprayregen has yet to negotiate with Columbia directly, but has come up with a land swap plan that he raised during the hearing. The swap would offer desired buildings to Columbia so the University would not have to use eminent domain to acquire them.

Jackson offered his assistance to Sprayregen and Siegel to promote the idea of a property swap, but criticized them for not bringing the plan to him directly. Siegel defended his strategy in which, until recently, the swap was discussed only in the press.

“You’ve played with Columbia, that’s what you’ve done,” Siegel told Jackson in a heated dialogue, adding, “You’ve made it clear to the community that you don’t stand with us. …We don’t trust Columbia, and at certain points along this process, we don’t trust you.”
“Well, at certain points, I don’t trust you either,” Jackson replied.

The date of the City Council vote is not set, but is expected to be held in mid-January.

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