Commission modifies CB9 and Columbia plans

Commission signs off on Columbia’s eminent domain option despite vocal opposition. On November 26, 2007, the Planning Commission modified and approved both Columbia University’s campus expansion plan and Community Board 9’s 197-a plan. The two plans must now go before the City Council for their review.

Columbia’s plan called for rezoning 35 acres of Manhattanville, a section of West Harlem primarily zoned for manufacturing, to facilitate construction of a 17-acre academic mixed-use development roughly bounded by West 125th and West 135th Streets, from Broadway to 12th Avenue. The development would include research buildings, classrooms, university housing, as well as space for recreation facilities and ground-floor retail. A contiguous below-grade facility, or “bathtub,” would serve the new campus buildings with parking facilities, truck loading facilities, and two central energy plants. If Columbia is unable to purchase the property necessary for the bathtub, then, under the plan, the Empire State Development Corporation would acquire the property by eminent domain on Columbia’s behalf. 4 CityLand 89 (July 15, 2007).

At the vote, the Commission modified Columbia’s plan so that it “better respects and reflects neighborhood scale and character.” The Commission reduced the heights of two, 200-foot-plus tall academic research buildings on Broadway, one between 133rd and 132nd Streets with the other located just one block south, to 120 feet and 180 feet, respectively. The Commission also modified the buildings’ intended use, calling for more university housing in order to break up a “concentration of six academic research buildings” in the area. According to Commission Chair Amanda Burden, the modifications “provide a more balanced transition” from Columbia’s development to existing developments just north of it, and ensure a “livelier, more varied character” along Broadway.

The Commission further modified Columbia’s plan by establishing a light manufacturing zone in the area west of 12th Avenue to encourage diverse economic activity in the area. It also mandated that Columbia comply with certain open space requirements to provide ample street plantings, public seating and other amenities.

Commissioner Karen Phillips voted against the plan, citing her concern that Columbia’s plan does not do enough to mitigate the direct and indirect displacement of local residents. Commissioner Irwin G. Cantor abstained from voting because of the plan’s eminent domain option, which allows ESDC to condemn property on behalf of a “private institution, bountifully endowed, and paying no taxes.”

The Board’s plan, which covered a slightly larger area than Columbia’s, proposed to maintain manufacturing uses, encourage new light industrial uses, and mandate affordable housing including measures to prevent the forced displacement of low- and moderate-income tenants. 4 CityLand 89 (July 15, 2007). The plan also proscribed the use of eminent domain and contained provisions that prevented construction of the proposed bathtub.

The Commission noted that the bathtub would improve the street-scape by locating many building support functions below-grade. The Commission also modified the portion of the Board’s plan proscribing eminent domain, noting that the decision to condemn land rests with ESDC, not the Commission. The Commission did note, however, that if ESDC condemns land on Columbia’s behalf, it would serve a public purpose insofar as it makes possible the public benefits under the Columbia plan, most notably the open space and pedestrian-friendly streets-cape. Commissioner Betty Chen remarked that the scientific research to be conducted on the new campus would serve an important public purpose as well.

The Commission also modified provisions in the Board’s plan mandating affordable housing because it conflicted with City policy, which encourages more flexible approaches that take into account varying economic conditions. Moreover, the Commission noted Columbia’s numerous efforts to mitigate resident displacement, including a $20 million fund to develop and preserve affordable housing within the Board’s district and a $4 million contribution to an anti-harassment legal clinic for local tenants.

The Commission voted unanimously for the Board’s modified plan. Chair Burden remarked that the “significant modifications” to both plans reconcile their differences and represents a new, shared vision for Manhattanville’s future. Both plans now go before the City Council for its review.

ULURP Process (Columbia Univ.):
Lead Agency: CPC,Pos.Dec.
Comm.Bd.: MN 9,Den’d, 32-2-1
Boro. Pres.: App’d
CPC: 10-1-1
Council: pending

CPC: Columbia University / Special Manhattanville District (C 070495 ZMM – map amend.); (N 070496 ZRM – text amend.) (Nov. 26, 2007) (Samuel H. Lindenbaum, for Columbia); Community Board 9 Manhattan 197-a Plan (N 060047 NPM) (Nov. 26, 2007).

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