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NYC Council Begins Reviewing Columbia Plan To Rezone 35 Acres for Future Growth

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The New York City Council last week began its formal review of Columbia University’s request to rezone 35 acres for a $7 billion project that would include new research and academic space, as well as retail space, apartments, and open space.
 
Columbia has said its proposed Special Manhattanville Mixed-Use Zoning District would enable it to develop 7.1 million square feet of new space over the next 25 years. Almost all of that space, 6.8 million square feet on 17 acres, would be used for various academic purposes, including nearly 2.6 million square feet of new research lab space and 296,201 square feet of support space.
 
The irregularly shaped district is bounded to the south by West 125th Street and St. Clair Place, to the west by 12th Avenue, to the north by the existing apartment complex 3333 Broadway and West 135th Street, and to the east by Broadway and several parcels east of Broadway.
 
Around 351,310 square feet of the lab space would be built in the first phase by 2015, with the remainder to be constructed by 2030. The school said that 18 acres of the project will not be redeveloped. Of this, nine acres would be turned into 329,500 square feet of commercial and residential space and two acres would be set aside for a West Harlem Waterfront Park. The remaining seven acres comprises city-owned land that is under water.
 
The project is expected to be approved in a vote next month, which would enable the school to start construction, though no groundbreaking date has been announced. The proposal also has critics, who fear that the school will employ eminent domain to push out residents, or that rising property values will force residents to relocate.
 
In its Final Environmental Impact Statement last month, Columbia said the project would create more than 11,000 permanent jobs and billions of dollars in economic activity [See SIDEBAR below].
 
Columbia also contends that it needs the rezoning to accommodate several growing programs that are unable to expand within its 36-acre campus in the Morningside Heights section in northern Manhattan.
 
One of those programs is the Jerome L. Greene Science Center for Columbia’s Mind, Brain and Behavior initiative. The center, established last year with a donation of more than $200 million from a foundation named for Greene, aims to “explore the causal relationship between gene function, brain wiring, and behavior.”
 
“Our current classrooms and laboratories are woefully inadequate for the new combinations of knowledge that will be essential for attracting talent capable of solving the great scientific challenges of this century,” Columbia President Lee Bollinger said at a Dec. 12 rezoning hearing.
 
Bollinger said the new space will enable Columbia to expand its Business School and School of International Public Affairs and to consolidate the School of the Arts’ current eight locations. The Greene science center, the business school, SIPA, and the arts schools would be built by 2015 within the first phase, as would some university housing and open space.
 

“Our current classrooms and laboratories are woefully inadequate for the new combinations of knowledge that will be essential for attracting talent capable of solving the great scientific challenges of this century,”

Other academic programs that Columbia said currently reside in inadequate space are architecture, planning and historic preservation; astronomy; astrophysics; biological sciences; ecology, evolution and environmental biology; economics; English; political science; psychology; and unspecified “new interdisciplinary initiatives” at Columbia University Medical Center.
 
“Our main challenge is space, space, space,” wrote Lee Goldman, CUMC’s executive vice president for health and biomedical sciences and dean of the faculties of health sciences and medicine, in a statement read by an aide at the hearing.
 
Ivy League rivalry also played a role in motivating Columbia: During the hearing, the university cited a proposal by Harvard University over the next 20 years to develop up to 5 million square feet of space on 215 of its 352 acres in Boston’s Allston Landing section for educational facilities and student housing.
 
On Oct. 3, the Boston Redevelopment Authority approved the first phase of that plan — 589,000 square feet of new facilities in four buildings on 8.5 acres in the Allston Landing section of Boston, including a new home for the Harvard Stem Cell Institute [BioRegion News, Sept. 24].
 
In addition, Columbia cited two surveys illustrating the university’s space crunch. One, conducted in 2006 by the Council on Government Relations, an association of research universities, showed that Columbia has 2.15 million square feet of “assignable” space compared with 6 million square feet for Yale University, 8.7 million for Harvard, and 10.5 million for the University of California, Los Angeles, the survey leader.
 
The other, conducted in 2004, placed Columbia last in a list of eight universities in amount of available space per student: The survey, which counted education and research space but not space used by medical schools, medical academic research space, hospitals, stadiums or apartment buildings, showed Columbia offers 326 square feet per student, Harvard has 673 square feet, and survey-leader Yale boasts 866 square feet.
 
‘Hail Mary’
 
Following comments by critics, the city Planning Commission last month approved a modified version of Columbia’s rezoning plan that eliminated two Broadway buildings totaling about 100,000 square feet that were included in the original proposal. The university also promised to build nearly 1,000 below-market housing units for employees [BioRegion News, Dec. 3].
 
One opponent, Walter South, a neighborhood resident and member of Community Board 9 Manhattan, views Columbia’s Ivy League competitiveness from a different perspective.
 
South said that Yale and Harvard can afford their expansion projects whereas Columbia cannot. Columbia’s endowment, which rose 22 percent during the past year, stood at $7.2 billion as of June 30, according to a university financial statement.
 
By comparison, Yale said its endowment grew 28 percent during that time, to $22.5 billion last year while Harvard said its endowment, the nation’s largest of any university, swelled 23 percent to $34.9 billion.
 
“Columbia wants to belly up to the table with the big boys. The only problem they have is [that] they cannot afford to pay the tab,” South said. “So what they’ve done is call for a Hail Mary play: They’re going to let the government pick up the tab.”
 
He alleged that the city would help Columbia by rezoning the site and paying for new infrastructure, while the state would help by financing the construction of new buildings through its Dormitory Authority, which assists nonprofits.
 
But in its FEIS, Columbia denied it would stick the city with the cost of infrastructure: “The proposed actions would not cause the city to incur costs for physical improvements to the project area (e.g., streetbed or sidewalk construction) or for mitigation measures. Such measures would be borne by the university.” South countered Columbia’s tax-exempt status as a nonprofit university constituted a subsidy since taxpayers would have to pay for city services to Columbia.
 
As for the state, its dormitory authority in 2005 approved $300 million in financing for a set of projects that included renovations to one building within Columbia’s proposed mixed-use zone, a 210,000-square-foot former Studebaker car assembly plant at 615 West 131st St. The building will be renovated into offices for 600 administrators.
 

“Columbia wants to belly up to the table with the big boys. The only problem they have is [that] they cannot afford to pay the tab.”

In August, Community Board 9 Manhattan passed a resolution opposing Columbia’s proposal. In addition to citing concerns about overdevelopment, environmental effects, and displacement of minorities through gentrification, the board listed 10 conditions under which it would support the university’s plan, including Columbia’s agreeing not to build “research facilities above biosafety level 2, or other noxious installations that would contribute to the already high environmental burdens of this community.”
A Columbia spokesman did not respond to a request for comment.
 
The board has proposed an alternative plan thatwould limit new academic research to a Center for Zero Waste Studies by Columbia, New York University, and other institutions. The plan, which can be seen here, rules out asking the state or city to condemn privately owned properties.
 
According to the board, the first phase of its project would include constructing a research center to study “industrial environmentally clean manufacturing” processes that would eliminate waste products. The plan also calls for incubator space for “high performance light manufacturing enterprises committed to zero waste production.”
 
Columbia said the board’s plan would limit the size of new facilities to 662,000 square feet and make no allowance for lab space. In its FEIS, the school said that “none of the sites considered adequate [by Community Board 9 Manhattan] for new construction of university use could yield the floor plates and size appropriate for the academic research buildings.”
 
Columbia said it prefers to build lab space within rectangular floor plates of 25,000 square feet — a size Community Board 9 Manhattan considers too large for the neighborhood.
 
The board and other groups critical of the rezoning plan insist they are not opposed to Columbia expanding, but rather seek a smaller redevelopment and a greater voice in shaping it. Opponents have also expressed fears that the state and city government will employ eminent domain statutes to condemn their properties, and claim that the project will eventually cause property values and rents to rise, thereby forcing residents to relocate.
 
Robert Kasdin, senior executive vice president of Columbia, said the university now either owns or is under contract to acquire 70 percent of its proposed zone; another 20 percent is owned by the state or city governments, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, or electric utility Consolidated Edison. The remaining 10 percent consists of commercial properties owned by three owners that have resisted selling to Columbia.
 
Columbia has promised to relocate residents of about 130 apartments now living within the project zone to “high-quality, alternative affordable housing” within the community.
 
Scott Bullock, senior attorney with the Institute for Justice, which opposes eminent domain for private redevelopment projects, told BioRegion News that critics of Columbia’s plan cite the notion that New York City and New York State officials are more willing than other city or state governments to condemn land for redevelopment projects.
 
According to Bullock, state law encourages eminent domain: Property owners challenging a condemnation must attend an early hearing and testify against the use of the statute or lose the right to challenge a redevelopment. Every other US state allows owners to fight redevelopers in state courts.
 
Also, only since 2004 has New York State required redevelopers to notify existing property owners personally, rather than through a newspaper legal ad, of any plans that might cost them their property. And New York is one of just eight states not to enact new laws favoring property owners in the two years since the US Supreme Court upheld eminent domain for public-private redevelopment projects.
 
“I think that’s testament to the very powerful institutions and players that benefit from eminent domain and do not want to see the law changed,” Bullock said. “New York is a state in vital need of reform. It gives incredibly broad powers to government to take property for private development projects.”
 
Attempting to respond to community concerns, Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer worked out his own agreement with Columbia in September. In it, Columbia said it would create a Community Information, Opportunities and Resources Center to inform residents about jobs, construction, and new housing; set aside $11.25 million toward 25 years of upkeep for a new waterfront park and $4 million for legal aid services to tenants facing unlawful eviction or harassment; and create a $20 million fund to finance below-market “affordable” housing development in the neighborhood.
 
Stringer spokeswoman Carmen Boon said the fund, which isn't set yet, is not a formal “community benefits agreement” like those obligating developers to a series of neighborhood projects. Kasdin said the university is negotiating a CBA with the public-private West Harlem Local Development Corp. and local elected officials.
 
In any event, critics of the project dismiss it as insufficient, arguing that with 1,100 housing units needed in the neighborhood the fund would only have $18,000 available to chip in toward new units. Columbia counters that the fund would leverage several multiples of its value in investment by developers, as well as its promise to develop 820 new housing units within the boundaries of Community Board 9 Manhattan, as well as 159 units for graduate students on land it owns two miles north of the proposed rezone.
 

 
Columbia University has touted several projected economic benefits of its $7 billion Manhattanville mixed-use mega-project:
  • The equivalent of 1,200 full-time construction jobs per year for 22 years.
  • Almost $10.7 billion in economic activity statewide through construction, of which about $9.4 billion would occur in New York City.
  • Upon completion, $2 billion a year in economic activity, $1.74 billion of that in New York City.
  • 7,086 permanent jobs — 6,399 within Columbia's mixed-use project, 687 outside but still within the new zone.
  • Another 3,960 permanent jobs within New York City.

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