Monday, April 02, 2007

Zoning Changes Proposed to Preserve West Harlem’s Character

Zoning Changes Proposed to Preserve West Harlem’s Character

Published: April 1, 2007

Columbia University’s proposal for a $7 billion expansion of its campus on 17 acres in West Harlem has touched off fears that another wave of gentrification will wash over this low-scale neighborhood of tenements, brownstones, housing projects, warehouses and small businesses.
Rising rents are already forcing out some longtime residents. Local politicians and community groups fear that Columbia’s project will draw other developers to the surrounding area and displace even more people.

According to a new study by the Manhattan borough president’s office, more than 200 lots scattered across the west side of Harlem are prime candidates for redevelopment. Under current zoning rules, a developer can build towers or dormitories that are far larger than the four- and six-story buildings commonly found in the area.

So Scott M. Stringer, the borough president, has proposed the creation of a special zoning district that would preserve the scale and character of the neighborhood, while encouraging the development of lower-cost housing and space for local businesses and retailers. The new zoning would also prevent the construction of oversized dormitories and other institutions that could overwhelm the neighborhood.

“This will give thousands of people in Harlem a degree of protection from the pressures of development,” Mr. Stringer said. “West Harlem would get the protection it needs to co-exist with, rather than be dominated by, Columbia University.”

On 17 acres west of Broadway, between 125th and 133rd Streets, Columbia wants to build as many as 18 glass-walled academic and research buildings and campus housing designed by Renzo Piano and Skidmore, Owings & Merrill.

The plan, which has generated opposition from some residents and local businesses since it was introduced three years ago, is expected to go before the local community board in the next two months, the first step in a lengthy review process that includes the City Planning Commission and the City Council.

Mr. Stringer’s special district would cover the neighborhood from the Hudson River to Convent and Bradhurst Avenues, between 125th and 145th Streets, which he said is beginning to show signs of gentrification. The development pressure, the report said, comes from the growth of nearby institutions like City College, as well as Columbia’s plans.

Mr. Stringer said that the Columbia proposal, already the subject of a zoning review, would not be affected by any rezoning in the special district.

According to the report, the zoning in West Harlem has not been changed since 1961. The new zoning would contain “antiharassment” provisions and demolition restrictions to protect tenants from illegal evictions that are similar to those in the Clinton special district near Times Square. It would also allow developers to build somewhat larger buildings in return for retail space for community-based businesses.

The proposal, which is just beginning to circulate and would be subject to a review process like Columbia’s plan, has gotten a favorable reception, at least initially, from supporters and critics of Columbia’s expansion plan.

Jim Capel, chief of staff for Representative Charles B. Rangel of Harlem, who has been supportive of Columbia’s plans, said the zoning proposal was a “very worthwhile” effort to provide support for residents in the adjoining neighborhoods.

And Jordi Reyes-Montblanc, chairman of Community Board 9, which covers West Harlem and opposes aspects of Columbia’s plans, was also enthusiastic, saying it was in line with the community’s vision for the area. “The borough president said it would be done by and for the community,” he said. “If it works that way, it’s going to be a great thing for the west side of Harlem.”

Robert Kasdin, senior executive vice president of Columbia, also seemed to view it favorably. “Serious proposals to preserve the character of residential neighborhoods are construction contributions,” he said. “I look forward to learning more.”

But some residents and business owners situated in the area where Columbia wants to build were suspect. Columbia now owns or controls about two-thirds of the 17 acres where its campus would be built. Another 20 percent of the land is owned by the Metropolitan Transportation Authority and Verizon Communications. Columbia has asked the state to use eminent domain to acquire the remaining property, a move that has infuriated many community board members and business owners.

Ann Whitman, who has refused to sell her building at Broadway and 129th Street, said that some people think the Stringer proposal is the equivalent of “throwing the community a bone so that Columbia can bulldoze the neighborhood. We don’t know if that’s a concession.”

Columbia says that it has outgrown its campus in Morningside Heights and must expand its teaching and research operations. The university said it would relocate the tenants living in 132 apartments within the 17 acres to comparable housing.

But Ms. Whitman and Nick Sprayregen, who owns five warehouses in the area, say Columbia already owns enough land to meet its educational needs. They each have development proposals for their own properties.

“They’re trying to forcibly remove every last business and homeowner,” Mr. Sprayregen said. “It’s ridiculous. If they only end up with 90 percent of the property, they won’t build the campus?”

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