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NYC Council Approves Columbia's Plan to Rezone 35 Acres for $7B Expansion Project

NEW YORK (GenomeWeb Daily News) - Columbia University yesterday won the rezoning it sought for a $7 billion mixed-use project — including nearly 2.6 million square feet of new research lab space and 296,201 square feet of support space — on 17 acres in the West Harlem section of Manhattan, but opponents promised to continue their fight in court.
The City Council approved rezoning 35 acres west of Columbia’s campus in Manhattan’s Morningside Heights section, which includes the 17 acres to be redeveloped by Columbia. By a margin of 35 to 5 with six abstentions, the City Council brushed aside years of criticism about the project from a coalition of community groups and civic leaders.
Mayor Michael Bloomberg was expected to sign the rezoning within the next five days.
“It will allow for an appropriate expansion of Columbia University,” Council Speaker Christine Quinn said at a news conference before the council’s final vote. “[The rezoning] will make sure that Columbia University will move forward, [and] make sure New York City can really keep up with the rest of the country in having as many 21st century, state-of-the-art research facilities as possible.”
Tom DeMott, a leader of the Coalition to Preserve Community, a leading critic of the rezoning plan, told GenomeWeb Daily News sister publication BioRegion News that his group and other opponents would seek a lawyer with the goal of filing a suit challenging the council’s approval.
“We believe that there is a lot of potential for us to halt the raising of [development] money and for us to halt the actual construction,” said DeMott, a 1980 graduate of Columbia College, in an interview. “We’re going to be doing our best to prevent Columbia University from raising the money for the expansion plan, and we’re going to do our best to continue to educate both the Columbia community and the community at large. The legal issues are out there. We just need to have someone come forward and give us a hand in getting them into court.”
Project opponents have contended that the project is too large for the surrounding neighborhood, too risky given the biosafety level 3 research to be carried out in some of the lab space, and too likely to inflate property values, forcing residents out of the neighborhood.
Critics have also insisted that Columbia should rule out asking the state to condemn via eminent domain a handful of commercial properties whose owners have not agreed to sell to the university; the university has only promised it would not seek eminent domain for residential properties.
Columbia has said it needs the extra research space to accommodate several growing programs unable to expand within its existing 36-acre campus, and to compete better with other top-tier research universities for researchers.
As BioRegion News reported earlier this week, Columbia last month released a Final Environmental Impact Statement that touted several economic benefits of the proposed expansion: The equivalent of 1,200 construction jobs each year for 22 years; 6,399 permanent jobs, and $2 billion a year in economic activity.
In addition to the project benefits, council members voting for Columbia’s plan cited the support the university received from two Democrats that represent West Harlem — Inez Dickins and Robert Jackson, whose district takes in Columbia’s proposed project and its Morningside Heights campus.
Jackson, Dickins, and other Columbia supporters argued West Harlem would ultimately benefit from Columbia’s project, citing a Community Benefits Agreement committing the university to spending $150 million on a variety of programs.
The basics of the CBA were hammered out Wednesday morning by representatives from the university, the public-private West Harlem Local Development Corp., and several elected officials — including Jackson, Stringer, and US Rep. Charles Rangel (D-Harlem).
Quinn and Columbia supporters on the council denied that the timing of the agreement drove the timing of the rezoning vote, which caught opponents off-guard since it came just one week after an eight-hour hearing that drew more than 90 speakers. During the Dec. 12 hearing, Jackson said the process “will end in mid-January,” since the council had until Jan. 15, the end of a mandated 50-day review period, to vote on the rezoning.
“What’s the rush? I don’t think we have to vote to give Columbia a Christmas present,” said council member Charles Barron (D-Brooklyn).
Jackson and other council members denied rushing to a final vote, noting the Columbia plan had been before the council and various agencies for more than two years. “This has been discussed, re-discussed, put in the washing machine and the dryer, and thrown in the washing machine again and again and again," said Jackson.
“I believe what we have here today with regards to our community is the best that we could do under the circumstances. Hundreds of millions of dollars will flow into our community as a result of this development,” said Jackson.

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