By Betsy Morais
PUBLISHED JANUARY 22
Since their beginnings, Columbia and Community Board 9’s alternative Manhattanville rezoning plans, known as 197-c and 197-a respectively, have traveled a long and winding road of revision. Yet many 197-a advocates have criticized these revision processes, arguing that CB9’s plan was altered more substantially than Columbia’s, and that conflicting components of the two proposals were left unresolved.
When City Council approved the proposals, it considered them exactly as the City Planning Commission presented them, without sending either plan back to the commission for further modifications.
“It’s fascinating that in a process this huge, we didn’t make one change to the applications. That is a disgrace,” said Councilman Tony Avella, D-Queens, who is chair of the zoning committee. “In my experience ... we’ve made changes on all big projects that come through ULURP. On a project this big, it was perfect? That’s absurd.”
But Columbia Senior Executive Vice President Robert Kasdin said the minimal change “reflects the enormous amount of thought the community had given to this area before Columbia began its planning,” and that the University incorporated the community’s ideas into its 197-c plan.
The University’s plan to rezone 35 acres of Manhattanville first took shape in 2003 to allow for the construction of a new campus. Although design elements and community agreements regarding the space evolved over time, the size of the 17-acre campus footprint remained the same.
In July 2006, the University agreed to revise its initial vision in response to local concern. The altered plan added more “open space,” changed building heights to create a more varied skyline, and shifted areas for public access and private ownership west of their original placement.
In Nov. 2007, City Planning changed two of Columbia’s proposed academic research buildings on Broadway to University housing, lowered building heights, and called for a more community-friendly, open campus design.
City Planning’s modifications to CB9’s plan were more drastic.
The 197-a plan, which had been in the works since 1991, sought to rezone the entire Manhattanville area, from 110th to 155th Streets. Omission of the section that became the University’s campus footprint marked a significant setback and sparked harsh criticism from activists.
“City Planning was not very helpful at all, and in fact gave us no help in reconciling the two plans at all, even when CB9 asked,” board member Michel Palma, CC ’85, said.
But City Planning Chair Amanda Burden believed that the manner in which the commission modified the plans was the best possible solution. “The [197-a] plan would result in an irregular pattern of development with less open space and an inferior public and pedestrian environment than that achievable under the integrated campus plan proposed by Columbia University, and that it would accommodate only a portion of Columbia’s proposed program,” the City Planning report stated.
“There was important convergence between the two plans, as recognized by the borough president in exhibit one to his ULURP recommendation and the comments of Amanda Burden,” Kasdin said. “Columbia’s plans have been improved by the significant comment made throughout the ULURP process.”
Still, Kasdin said he was not surprised that some people were dissatisfied.
At the City Council’s public hearing on Manhattanville in December, then-CB9 Chair Jordi Reyes-Montblanc and 197-a Committee Chair Pat Jones—now CB9 chair—argued unsuccessfully against City Planning’s decision, seeking greater affordable housing, landmark preservation, and increased community accessibility to university facilities. In addition, they called for a council statement opposing eminent domain.
“The decision was made to favor Columbia’s stated academic mixed use model resulting in significant modifications to the 197-a plan,” their testimony read. “The plan as now modified destroyed much of the essence of the original plan.”