Commission hears Columbia’s and CB 9’s plans

Columbia University proposes northward expansion; CB 9 seeks industrial jobs and affordable housing. On October 3, 2007, the Planning Commission held a public hearing on Columbia University’s and Manhattan Community Board 9’s competing plans for the future of West Harlem.

Under Columbia’s plan, the City would rezone 35 acres of Manhattanville, a section of West Harlem currently zoned primarily for manufacturing, and create a Special Manhattanville Mixed-Use District stretching from West 125th to West 135th Streets, between Broadway and the Hudson River. Within this new district, Columbia would construct a 17-acre academic mixed-use development that would include academic building space, university housing, recreation space, and retail space. 4 CityLand 89 (July 15, 2007).

The plan also calls for a contiguous below-grade facility, or “bathtub,” that would house a parking garage, centralized loading dock, swimming facility, trash compaction, and two central energy plants. The bathtub would occupy property below West 130th, West 131st, and West 132nd Streets between Broadway and Twelfth Avenue. If Columbia is unable to purchase the property necessary for the bathtub, then the Empire State Development Corporation would acquire it by eminent domain on Columbia’s behalf.

At the hearing, the Commission pressed Columbia’s representative, Vice President Robert Kasdin, about the necessity of the bathtub. Kasdin responded that it would create more space above-grade, taking cars off the streets, reducing curb cuts, and making the area more pedestrian-friendly.

The Commission also raised the issue of eminent domain. Commissioner Irwin Cantor suggested that if ESDC condemns land for Columbia, then it should do so right away. Otherwise, he argued, Columbia could use the threat of eminent domain as an unfair advantage when negotiating with property owners. Kasdin responded that the ultimate decision to condemn land would be ESDC’s, not Columbia’s.

The board’s plan contemplates a different future for West Harlem. Its plan covers a larger area: the neighborhoods of Manhattanville, Hamilton Heights and Morningside Heights, stretching from West 122nd to West 135th Streets between Convent Avenue and the Hudson River. Unlike Columbia’s plan, the board’s plan proposes to maintain manufacturing uses, encourage new light industrial uses and retain existing low- and moderate-income housing. 4 CityLand 89 (July 15, 2007).

At the hearing, Ron Shiffman, a former Planning Commission Commissioner, presented the board’s plan, arguing that it represented the interests of West Harlem’s long-term residents without displacing Manhattanville residents. Shiffman attacked Columbia’s plan, particularly the proposed bathtub, asking the Commission to take a closer look at various engineering, technical and safety issues. Throughout his presentation, Shiffman requested that the Commission prevent Columbia from acquiring land through eminent domain.

The Commission remarked that engineering issues cannot be addressed absent technical studies and data. According to Commissioner Cantor, without such information, statements against the bathtub could be considered “alarmist.” Shiffman responded that the board would present the Commission with technical documents challenging the bathtub’s safety as soon as possible.

The Commission will vote on both proposals on November 26, 2007.

CPC: Special Manhattanville Mixed-Use District (070495ZMM – map amendment); (070496ZRM – text amendment) (Oct. 3, 2007); Community Board 9 Manhattan 197-a Plan (N060047NPM) (Oct. 3, 2007).

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