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05.09.2007
Growing Pains
BP Stringer proposes special zoning district to protect West Harlem from Columbia University expansion

Columbia University is expected to submit its official rezoning plans for a proposed expansion into Manhattanville to Manhattan Community Board 9 this month, a plan the board and local residents have vocally opposed. There is little support beyond a few student activists, but on April 1, Manhattan borough president Scott Stringer lent the opposition some much needed support when he announced rezoning plans of his own intended to protect the interests and assuage the fears of Columbia’s future neighbors without impinging directly on the university’s plans.

Those plans, developed by Renzo Piano Building Workshop and Skidmore Owings & Merrill and released in July 2003, call for as many as 18 glass towers the on 17 acres bounded by 125th St., Broadway, 133rd St., and 12th Avenue, just north of Columbia’s main campus. Stringer’s proposal does not cross into this territory but instead surrounds it on three sides, stretching from the Hudson to Edgecombe Ave. between 125th and 145th streets. “We wanted to think beyond the footprint,” Stringer told AN. “How do you preserve the community so Columbia does not dominate West Harlem but coexists with West Harlem?”

The biggest concern for the borough president’s office is controlling gentrification and maintaining the neighborhood’s distinct character. In a study released as part of the zoning proposal, Stringer’s office found 22 percent of lots within its rezoning area to be residential “soft sites,” which are considered ripe for redevelopment because they are built below their potential floor area ratio (FAR). Furthmore, just over 50 percent could be soft sites if developed as community facilities, which allow developers to increase the FAR in exchange for public amenities. Academic uses fall into this category.

The borough president’s solution is to downzone buildings within the special district to protect their lowrise character, commonly between four and six stories. If developers wish to build above this threshold, they must include concessions for affordable housing or smallscale, locally owned businesses. The hope is these measures will protect local residents and business owners from being displaced. “Part of this is we realize there will be development, which is good for the city,” Stringer said. “But we also have to protect the city for those who have made it what it is.” To that end, the proposal also stipulates harassment and demolition safeguards to prevent unlawful evictions and encourage adaptive reuse.

The biggest concern for residents below 125th Street is that Stringer’s special district does not include them, unlike a non-binding CB9 proposal, which extends to 116th Street. “Our concerns are that the immediate area to the south of the expansion area is not protected,” said Tom DeMott, who lives on Tiemann Place, half a block south of 125th Street. DeMott, who is also a member of the Coalition to Preserve Community, said he gave Stringer the benefit of the doubt, but that he and his neighbors are still uneasy.

CB9 chairperson Jordi Reyes-Montblanc remains steadfast in his belief that the community will prevail in its fight against Columbia, with or without Stringer. “If the plan is not reflective in a complete way of the 197-a, the 197-c will not go very far,” he said, using the technical names for CB9 and Stringer’s plans. Like the borough president, Reyes- Montblanc insists locals are not opposed to Columbia, but he sees the university’s unwillingness to abandon eminent domain—Columbia controls two-thirds of the expansion zone while the MTAandVerizonownanother 20 percent—as a means of extortion that will not succeed. “We’ve had proposals for arenas, 75-story hotels, office towers, water-side condos, and all of them have been defeated,” Reyes-Montblanc said. 

Matt Chaban