Monday, December 10, 2007

Council to Vote On CU Expansion

Council to Vote On CU Expansion
By Betsy Morais

The public review process for Columbia’s proposed Manhattanville development is entering its final stages. As the City Council gears up to give the last word, despite continued opposition, the outlook is positive for Columbia.

Columbia’s 197-c plan, which would allow for a new campus in Manhattanville, and Community Board 9’s 197-a—an alternative framework for future development in West Harlem—have reached their final stage of consideration in the Uniform Land Use Review Procedure. The City Council will commence its hearings on the plans Wednesday morning at the subcommittee meeting for Planning, Dispositions & Concessions and Zoning & Franchises. Once the council believes it has sufficiently scrutinized Columbia’s 197-c and CB9’s 197-a proposals, it will hold a final vote, most likely within the first two weeks of January.

“City Council will pass the Columbia plan, there’s no doubt in my mind,” Hope Cohen, deputy director of the Manhattan Institute’s Center for Rethinking Development, said.

Cohen predicts that the council will approve modified versions 197-c and 197-a, similar to the City Planning Commission decision that approved both with changes. “If City Planning found a way to approve both, City Council will find a way to approve both,” she said.

Although debate among council members is in its early stages, Wednesday morning’s subcommittee meeting “should be the hottest,” Cohen explained, since most of the action the council takes occurs at the subcommittee level.

Councilman Robert Jackson, D-West Harlem, who represents the expansion zone, is a member of the Land Use subcommittee on Zoning & Franchises. He will vote for CB9’s 197-a plan but is unsure of his position on Columbia’s 197-c, according to his chief of staff, Susan Russell.

Jackson “embraces the notion of Columbia expansion,” Russell said, but is not prepared to take a definitive stance until hearing the University’s testimony. Still, Cohen said she suspects Jackson will come out in favor of Columbia’s plan.

Inez Dickens, D-Harlem, also a member of the subcommittee, has not stated her positions on either rezoning proposal, but she has expressed her desire for strong community benefits. “This is a very volatile situation because there are so many people’s lives who are affected,” Dickens’ spokesperson Lynette Velasco said.

Columbia is currently in negotiations with the West Harlem Local Development Corporation to form a Community Benefits Agreement to accompany its expansion plan, and it is likely that they will reach an agreement before the Council’s final vote in January. The announcement of a CBA may make it easier politically for Council members to vote in favor of Columbia’s plan. With the recent resignation of three of Columbia’s most vocal critics from the LDC, it is likely that the elected officials on the board will have a strong influence in determining the outcome of the CBA process.

Displacement has been central in Manhattanville debate, particularly in light of the potential use of eminent domain to acquire property for Columbia. The University has promised not to use eminent domain on residential properties, but with the state’s consent, eminent domain could be used on commercial properties whose owners have refused to sell. City Council members are likely to raise concerns about eminent domain as they review the University’s plan, despite the fact that their ULURP vote is not directly related to eminent domain use.

Zoning & Franchises subcommittee Chair Tony Avella, D-Queens and a candidate for mayor, has been engaged in the Manhattanville debate as a proponent of community involvement in planning decisions. Critical of many of his colleagues, Avella has introduced legislation calling for a stronger neighborhood voice in the rezoning process, expressed his support of CB9’s 197-a, and has called President Lee Bollinger an “eminent domain abuser.”

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