Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Critics of Columbia Plan Likely To Spur ‘Affordable' Housing

Critics of Columbia Plan Likely To Spur ‘Affordable' Housing
Special to the Sun
August 15, 2007

As Columbia University's planned 17-acre expansion moves through the public approval process, community opposition is likely to leverage the creation of Columbia-financed "affordable" housing and some alterations to the institution's proposal.

A vote on the university's $7 billion plan is scheduled tonight at Manhattan's Community Board 9. Community groups have been strongly opposed to numerous aspects of Columbia's proposal, including the potential use of eminent domain, and many expect the board to reject the plan.

A rejection by the Community Board, which is non-binding, would help add pressure to create a community benefits agreement with Columbia, with substantial commitments by the university.

"Now you have the board formally taking a position," Council Member Robert Jackson, a Democrat who represents West Harlem, said. "Does that bring pressure? Of course it does."

Columbia is working with elected officials and community groups to forge an agreement that is likely to include a commitment by the university to fund the creation of affordable housing and to ensure job creation.

Mr. Jackson said he was hopeful an agreement would be reached before the City Council votes on the plan in the fall. Council approval is required for the project to proceed, as is approval by the City Planning Commission.
Columbia officials say they are committed to seeing the creation and preservation of low-income housing in the area, which represents a change from late last year, when the university said it was open to the concept.

"There's a clear commitment by Columbia to address affordable housing," an executive vice president at Columbia, Robert Kasdin, said yesterday.

The university is still open to changes to its expansion plan, Mr. Kasdin said, and is committed "to identifying additional common ground" with the community.

Still, many in the area have expressed a strong resistance to the expansion plan because of the potential use of eminent domain, which Columbia has refused to take off the table as a tool for acquiring land. The community board has supported a competing set of rezoning guidelines that if passed would forbid the use of eminent domain.

"People aren't against Columbia expanding. What they are against is against the Columbia plan as presently presented," the chairman of Community Board 9, Jorge Reyes-Montblanc, said.

Citywide attention to the Columbia plan also could push forward a plan to rezone the surrounding West Harlem area, proposed by the president of Manhattan, Scott Stringer. Mr. Stringer Â-- who has signed on numerous business groups and elected officials, including Rep. Charles Rangel, a Democrat of Harlem Â-- is pushing for zoning changes that would decrease the density and size of new buildings throughout the area. However, buildings with "affordable" housing could be larger than those without, according to the plan.

The new restrictions on development are needed in order to decrease rent and cost pressures on the surrounding community, Mr. Stringer said, which would surely be affected by the expansion.

"We must have a plan that allows the community to coexist with Columbia rather than be dominated by Columbia," Mr. Stringer said.

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