Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Activists, Officials Confused About Manhattanville Vote Timeline
By Daniel Amzallag

Local activists, elected officials, and Columbia officers reacted with confusion Tuesday as rumors spread that the City Council could vote on Manhattanville expansion as early as Wednesday.

The Council vote is the final step of the rezoning process which Columbia must go through before construction begins at Manhattanville. City law allows the Council 50 days after a proposal is referred from the Planning Commission—in this case until January 15—before voting on the rezoning proposal. Expansion opponents had not widely expected a vote to take place until next month.

But Monday night, the Coalition to Preserve Community, a local group opposed to Columbia’s expansion, circulated a statement announcing that the vote would take place Wednesday and calling a protest and press conference at City Hall.

As of 6 p.m. Tuesday, City Council Speaker Christine Quinn’s office would not confirm that the vote would take place Wednesday, saying only that there is “a tentative meeting for tomorrow.”
“Land use meetings are often subject to change, often moved around. It’s difficult to say,” an official in the speaker’s press office said.

Tom DeMott, CC ’80 and the leader of the CPC, learned of the vote through a chain of communications including local landowner Nick Sprayregen, his attorney Norman Siegel, and Tony Avella, D-Queens and chair of the Council’s Zoning & Franchises Committee. Siegel said that he had previously been working under the premise that the vote would be taking place in January.

Avella said that a Monday morning meeting of the committee was recessed until Wednesday morning at the request of Quinn. “Why would they do that if they weren’t setting the ULURP [rezoning] vote for Wednesday?” he said.

“I think there’s a strong possibility that the vote is going to happen Wednesday,” Avella added, although he said he could neither confirm nor deny the possibility.

But at least one local resident said that the vote had been publicly scheduled for Wednesday long before Monday’s rumors. “We’ve always heard that it would be tomorrow [Wednesday]. It was always a possibility that it would go to January, but according to the calendar, it would be tomorrow,” Maritta Dunn said. “I only heard that there was a possibility that it might be taken to January a day or so ago.”

As of Tuesday evening, the City Council’s Web site did not include Manhattanville on Wednesday’s agenda. According to the site, the last full Council meeting of the year is scheduled to take place Wednesday at 1:30 p.m., with a joint meeting of the Zoning & Franchises and Planning, Dispositions & Concessions committees at 9:30 a.m., and a Land Use committee meeting at 10 a.m.

Columbia was always aware that a vote on the rezoning could come at any time following a public hearing that took place last Thursday, but was not aware of specific plans, University spokesperson LaVerna Fountain said. “We’re always prepared no matter what. It’s always been a matter that they can call us at anytime, and we have to be ready to go,” she said.

The new timeframe is an attempt to hasten the approval of Columbia’s plan, Sprayregen and DeMott said. “Time is on our side, not theirs. The more time we have to organize people to raise issues the more opportunity we have to make arguments which might make the City Council people reluctant to support the plan,” DeMott said.

Sprayregen accused Columbia of influencing the Council’s elected officials toward rushing to a vote, allegations which Fountain denied.

The Wednesday vote raises concerns about whether the University will be able to negotiate a community benefits agreement before the Council vote. The West Harlem Local Development Corporation, the group empowered to negotiate a community benefits agreement with Columbia, will meet with University officials Tuesday night, said Dunn, who is an officer of the WHLDC. While it is not legally necessary to finalize a community benefits agreement before the vote, Dunn said, “I think everybody would like that, whether or not that’s possible I don’t know.”

Richard Lipsky, a lobbyist for Sprayregen—who resigned from the LDC in protest three weeks ago—attributed the ambiguity regarding the vote’s scheduling to the lack of a finalized community benefits agreement. “If they don’t have a deal and they can’t announce an agreement and trumpet all these benefits, then they won’t do it [vote on the rezoning],” he said.

Sprayregen is currently negotiating the possibility of a land swap of his properties for properties owned by the University that are not in the expansion zone. The City Council vote, or lack thereof, will not impact the land swap negotiations between Sprayregen and Columbia, Lipsky said.

Betsy Morais contributed to this article.

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