City Council nearing vote on Columbia expansion

From Crains

The Council was engaged in last-minute bickering Wednesday afternoon, ahead of its decision on the University’s plan to rezone 17 acres in West Harlem.

December 19. 2007 3:28PM
By: Anne Michaud

The City Council was engaged in last-minute deliberations Wednesday afternoon, ahead of its vote to approve Columbia University’s controversial plan to rezone 17 acres in West Harlem for an arts, business and science campus.

The council’s move to squeeze a decision in the final week before the Christmas holiday is an effort to keep a bitter battle in a community of color from stretching out into the New Year.

Two more members of the West Harlem Local Development Corp. – a board chosen to represent the community in talks with Columbia – quit Wednesday in protest over the rushed process. The LDC has been negotiating a package of housing, jobs and education benefits to compensate the Manhattanville neighborhood for the loss of residences and businesses.

Three LDC board members resigned last month in order to criticize the secret negotiations, which they say were designed to buy the community’s acquiescence. People who remain on the board have promised to keep the negotiations confidential.

Columbia’s plan marks the culmination of more than four years of work by the university, which has been buying up land and properties in the neighborhood of the campus-to-be and now owns more than 70% of the area. The university wants to spend $7 billion to build as many as 18 towers with classrooms, offices, student housing and laboratory space, which will give it the facilities to compete with other world-class institutions.

But community opposition has led Columbia to make several concessions in the hopes of pushing its plan through. At the request of Borough President Scott Stringer, the University agreed to endow a $20 million Manhattanville Neighborhood Preservation Fund, which, together with other measures, would preserve or create 1,139 housing units. The school will also provide $4 million to fund an anti-harassment legal assistance program to address indirect residential displacement.

The West Harlem LDC is asking for another $100 million in housing funds.

If the City Council approves of the plan, Columbia will have to submit a general project proposal to the Empire State Development Corp., which has the final say over whether properties can be taken by eminent domain, against an owners’ will. However, that may not be necessary. The three business owners who were refusing to sell to Columbia resumed talks with the university last Friday.

Posted Under: City Council, Institutional Expansion, Manhattanville

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