Tuesday, May 13, 2008

City Approves Manhattanville Plan, Project Approaches Construction

City Approves Manhattanville Plan, Project Approaches Construction
By Betsy Morais

Columbia’s campus expansion into Manhattanville went from proposal to city-approved project this year amid clamor that ranged from staunch opposition to excitement.

City Council’s vote on Dec. 19, which approved rezoning of the area where the campus will be built, was key in propelling the University’s vision forward. The 17-acre site of the future campus is mostly comprised of four blocks from 129th to 133rd streets between Broadway and 12th Avenue, as well as property on the north side of 125th Street and east of Broadway from 131st to 134th streets.

Columbia is now aggressively seeking the 10 percent of the land within the expansion footprint that remains in the hands of three private business owners who have yet to strike a deal with the University. If no agreement is reached, the state of New York may seize the desired properties “for the public good” via eminent domain, should the Empire State Development Corporation deem Manhattanville “blighted” at the conclusion of an ongoing study. The state would then hand over control of this land to the University, so that its campus design could be realized.

The school year kicked off with shouts from all sides on the issue, as neighborhood residents and local entrepreneurs speculated the changes Columbia’s project could bring to the area. Supporters say it will revitalize the area’s economy and aesthetics, as its atmosphere shifts from light industry to college campus.

At the City Council vote, Speaker Christine Quinn professed her support. “No one wants to infringe on the rich history of Harlem,” she said. “I am proud that we are voting on a plan that will not only preserve that history, but will also pull old manufacturing areas out of the shadows and into the light of thriving cultural and academic centers.”

But others fear the underbelly of improvement: gentrification. Opponents of the expansion plan believe Columbia’s transformation of Manhattanville will outprice deeply-rooted community residents.

“We do not need a plan that has the destruction of the existing community at its core, that will continue to diminish housing for our people, create fewer jobs for residents than it eliminates, bring us potential environmental hazards, irreversibly alter our diverse socioeconomic fabric, and disrespect our historical and architectural integrity,”Tom Kappner, a longtime community activist and Coalition to Preserve Community member, said to City Council at a public hearing.

The CPC held numerous demonstrations against the University’s approach to the expansion, and the organization has continued its opposition even after City Council voted to approve Columbia’s plan.

Despite some protests from the City Hall balconies while votes were cast, the council followed the lead of Inez Dickens (D-Central Harlem and Morningside Heights) and Robert Jackson (D-Washington Heights and West Harlem) as it gave an overwhelming thumbs-up to Columbia, with only five votes against the rezoning plan.

“As Columbia looked to expand further into the neighborhood, we needed to be sure that we preserved the heart and soul of the community,” Jackson said, asserting that both the community and University were heard.

But now, after the city has spoken on Manhattanville, activists are turning their attention to the state over the question of eminent domain. Many expect the state to declare the neighborhood blighted, which could allow the University to gain access to desired property even without the consent of the three outstanding business owners.

Columbia officials say they remain hopeful about reaching negotiations with all owners, but have acknowledged that if negotiations prove impossible, the state would be justified in exerting its power of eminent domain. But critics argue that since Columbia is a private entity, New York’s potential use of eminent domain would be illegitimate.As all eagerly await the blight study results, the University’s Manhattanville design team is busy at work. Construction will occur in three phases over a span of about 30 years.

With architect Renzo Piano—who designed the new New York Times headquarters—at the helm, Columbia is currently at work on the first phase. Though designs are still in the early stages, the architects are working with aesthetic motifs such as transparent glass, red brick, and steel structures that echo the existing viaducts in the neighborhood.


TAGS: City Council, Manhattanville

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