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NYC Council OKs Columbia's Rezoning Plan; Critics To Dispute Approval in Court

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Columbia University has 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 have promised to continue their fight in court.
 
On Dec. 20, the City Council approved rezoning 35 acres west of Columbia’s campus in Manhattan’s Morningside Heights section, including 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.
 
“It will allow for an appropriate expansion of Columba 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, 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.”
 
“This expansion will add to the academic success of the city, add to New York City really being seen as a first-class academic town,” Quinn added.
 
Tom DeMott, a leader of the Coalition to Preserve Community, a leading critic of the rezoning plan, told 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. “Our strategy from here on in will be, 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.”
 
Community Concerns
 
Project opponents have contended that the project was too large for the surrounding neighborhood; too risky for nearby residents 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.
 
Opponents have also objected to Columbia’s decision to build much of the infrastructure for its project — including utilities, parking, and loading areas — within an underground seven-story concrete structure or “bathtub,” saying the presence of a fault line nearby raises the possibility of a neighborhood disaster in the event of an earthquake.
 
Columbia has denied that argument and insisted that it needs to place infrastructure underground if it is to build the lab space and housing it wants: “The central below-grade service area is critical to meeting Columbia’s need for program space, and it would enhance the above-grade urban environment,” Columbia said in its Final Environmental Impact Statement completed in November.
 
According to the report, Columbia will build some 351,310 square feet of the lab space in the project’s first phase by 2015, with the rest to be constructed by 2030. The first phase would include a permanent home for the Jerome L. Greene Science Center for Columbia’s Mind, Brain and Behavior initiative, established last year with a donation of more than $200 million, the largest gift in university history, from a foundation named for Greene. Also to be built by 2015 within the project’s first phase are an expanded Business School, a new School of International Public Affairs, a consolidated School of the Arts, some university housing and open space.
 
Critics have also insisted that Columbia should rule out asking the state to condemn via eminent domain the handful of commercial properties whose owners have not agreed to sell to the university. But the university has only promised it would not seek eminent domain for residential properties.
 

“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.”

Nick Sprayregen, one of three commercial property owners who have not yet reached agreement with the university, met on Dec. 13 with Columbia representatives for the first time in three years, at the university’s invitation. Both sides discussed Sprayregen’s concept of exchanging three properties he owns west of Broadway for two sites east of Broadway. Sprayregen hopes to redevelop the sites with a mix of retail space and between 700 to 1,000 apartments, with as much affordable housing as his financing would allow.
 
Sprayregen owns Tuck-It-Away, which operates four self-storage sites in West Harlem, eight others elsewhere in New York City, and one in Newark, NJ.
 
“They requested more specific details and I said I would be willing to put in the time and effort to do so as long as they are serious about possibly doing the deal. They said yes.
That is how things were left. We all agreed that we should try to get together sooner rather than later,” Sprayregen told BRN via e-mail.
 
No meeting had been set at deadline: “I would expect early January to have something done,” he said.
 
Sprayregen said he did not oppose Columbia expanding into West Harlem, but preferred a smaller scale of development conforming to a land-use guideline developed by Community Board 9 Manhattan, which serves West Harlem, under 197-a of the New York City Charter.
 
The 197-a plan would have barred eminent domain and limited new academic research to a center for clean manufacturing or “Zero Waste Studies.” Columbia has opposed the 197-a plan, saying it would allow the university to build only 662,000 square feet of facilities, but no lab space.
 
“As far as the rezoning goes, this area needed to be rezoned. The community board wanted it; I wanted it and so did Columbia. The issue was and remains that of eminent domain and forced displacement. Even with [the council] vote, those issues remain unsolved,” Sprayregen told BRN. “Simply put, eminent domain should not be used in this expansion. It is unethical and totally not needed.”
 
To that end, he has also had talks with New York state’s economic development agency, the Empire State Development Corp., hoping to persuade it against pursuing a condemnation. Sprayregen was among plaintiffs who sued the ESDC, contending it should not have retained the planning firm AKRF to prepare a $300,000, Columbia-funded study concluding the neighborhood was blighted, and thus allowing the state to use eminent domain to acquire land for Columbia, since AKRF had also been retained by the university to prepare environmental reports for its project.
 
While no study has yet been released, the plaintiffs won a decision in their favor from state Supreme Court Justice Shirley Werner Kornreich on June 27: “While acting for Columbia, AKRF has an interest of its own in the outcome of [ESDC's] action, as AKRF, presumably, seeks to succeed in securing an outcome that its client, Columbia, would favor.” The state has appealed Kornreich’s decision, which was posted on the web site of opponents to the planned Atlantic Yards development in Brooklyn, and can be read here.
 
‘Long-Term Opportunities’
Columbia has said it needs the extra research space to accommodate several growing programs unable to expand within its existing 36-acre campus, in Manhattan’s Morningside Heights section, and to compete better with other top-tier research universities for researchers.
 
As BioRegion News reported earlier this month, Columbia’s FEIS touted several economic benefits of its projects: The equivalent of 1,200 construction jobs each year for 22 years; 6,399 permanent jobs, and $2 billion a year in economic activity [BioRegion News, Dec. 17].
 
We have arrived at a significant turning point on the matter of space for the University to grow together with our communities,” Columbia President Lee Bollinger said in a statement issued soon after the council vote. “The long-term opportunities for Columbia and the people who live and work in our community and our city are barely imaginable to us at this early moment.
 
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 Dickens and Robert Jackson, whose district takes in Columbia’s proposed project and its Morningside Heights campus.
 
Jackson, Dickens, and other Columbia supporters argued West Harlem would ultimately benefit from Columbia’s project, citing a Community Benefits Agreement committing the university to spend $150 million on a variety of programs, including:
  • Launching a new pre-kindergarten through eighth grade public school to be developed with community leaders by Columbia’s Teachers College.
  • Creating a permanent site for a public secondary school focused on math, science, and engineering that has already begun teaching sixth-graders in temporary space.
  • Funding the School at Columbia, a private school with half of its enrollment comprised of children from the local community.
  • Allowing community access to Columbia facilities and youth athletic clinics within the project.
  • Establishing a $20 million fund to finance below-market “affordable” housing for West Harlem residents.
  • Spending $11.25 million toward upkeep of a new waterfront park for 25 years; and $4 million toward legal aid for tenants facing eviction or harassment by their landlords.
The housing fund, tenant fund and waterfront park money had been agreed to by Columbia in September, following talks with Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer.
 
Columbia has also promised to develop 820 new housing units within the boundaries of Community Board 9 Manhattan, and 159 units for graduate students on land it owns two miles north of the proposed rezone; as well as to relocate residents of about 130 apartments now living within the project zone to “high-quality, alternative affordable housing” within the community.
 
Failure to Reconcile?
 
The basics of the CBA were hammered out on the morning of Dec. 19 — the day before the rezoning vote — 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).
 
The local development corporation’s decision to negotiate with Columbia without insisting on the university accepting the 197-a plan or rejecting eminent domain for all property owners angered five members of the LDC board enough to resign in protest — including DeMott, Sprayregen, and Rev. Earl Kooperkamp, pastor of St. Mary’s Episcopal Church.
 
“Much of the language in this benefits agreement talked about good-faith efforts. I can tell you a lot about faith, but as far as good faith, drive a Mack truck through it,” Kooperkamp said to applause at a rally of opponents held hours before the final council vote. “It looks like eminent domain is still in there, and as a member of a religious congregation, I say that violates [Commandment] number eight: thou shalt not steal.”
 
Agreeing with Kooperkamp and other opponents was the chair of the council’s subcommittee on zoning and franchises, Tony Avella (D-Whitestone, Queens): “Even though institutions like Columbia … provide an important service, they should not be allowed to destroy the very fabric of the community they’re supposed to be serving,” Avella said during a Dec. 12 hearing.
 
Yet a majority of Avella’s subcommittee voted for Columbia’s plan, as did majorities of the landmarks, public siting, and maritime uses committee chaired by Jessica Lappin (D-Upper East Side, Manhattan), and the planning, dispositions, and concessions subcommittee chaired by Daniel Garodnick (D-East Side, Manhattan), as well as the council’s land use committee chaired by Melinda Katz (D-Forest Hills, Queens).
 
The panels were swayed in part by the fact Columbia was able to assemble its own coalition of business owners and civic leaders — including former New York City Mayor David Dinkins. They said community leaders who worked with Columbia were likelier to get what they sought for West Harlem than those who opposed the university.
 
“We believe that we can sit down [and] work together,” said Reginald Williams, pastor of Charity Baptist Church of Christ, and a member of the Coalition for the Future of Manhattanville. “At the end of the day, we’re all going to be neighbors. We’re all going to live in that area,” Williams said.
 
The council and its panels acted after the planning commission persuaded Columbia to trim its project last month, when the university sliced about 100,000 square feet of lab space from its original proposal and committed itself to building nearly 1,000 units of below-market housing for employees [BioRegion News, Dec. 3].
 
The planning commission should have pressed Columbia for further reductions in the project, CB9M’s chairman Jordi Reyes-Montblanc said: “At the end, the city planning department and the [planning] commission failed in their stated objective of trying to reconcile the needs of the community and those of Columbia University.”
 
While the council need not hew to the advice of the planning commission, the council’s 51 members typically side with the planners in land-use issues.
 
Quinn and Columbia supporters on the council denied that the timing of the community benefits agreement drove the timing of the rezoning vote, which caught opponents off-guard since it came just one week after an eight-hour hearing on Dec. 12 that drew more than 90 speakers. During that 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,” he said.
 
“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,” Jackson said.