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Rival Vision for Harlem Challenges Columbia Plan

July 18, 2007

by Dorian Davis

Columbia University continues to encounter hurdles in its plans to build a new 17-acre campus in Manhattanville, a scheme created by the Renzo Piano Building Workshop and Skidmore Owings & Merrill. Roughly 400 people turned out a public hearing last week to support plan 197-A, a modest community-backed alternative to the school’s proposal.

Named for a clause in New York City’s charter that authorizes communities to create and submit their own development plans to the City Council, and developed over the past three years with the help of experts at the Pratt Institute, the 197-A plan is intended to integrate newcomers, such as Columbia, into Manhattanville without compromising the character of this West Harlem neighborhood.

“197-A is a curious animal,” says Walter South, vice-chair of Community Board 9’s 197-A Planning Committee. “It makes a statement that the people of this neighborhood want to keep the neighborhood intact—and it invites developers to become a part of it, within reason.”

Columbia appears willing to amend its own development plan, dubbed 197-C, which as RECORD reported is currently under review at Community Board 9 before heading to the Borough President’s office. Last month, for instance, the school hired Davis Brody Bond Aedas, which has extensive experience in Harlem, to work with Piano in designing structures for the new campus. And, in response to mounting criticism that 197-C failed to retain a sufficient number of historic structures, the university has undertaken parts of an expensive preservation program advocated in 197-A. These include plans to restore four buildings in and around the proposed new campus site, as well as several other buildings farther north in Hamilton Heights.

Despite these changes, some observers fault Columbia for what they describe as an inconsistent, ad hoc approach to preservation. Currently the school proposes to retain the former Sheffield Farms Dairy building at the edge of the new campus, but not its companion, the Sheffield Stable, now occupied by Hudson Moving and Storage. “These buildings were built as an ensemble, and were meant to relate to each other—to create a monumental presence on the street,” says historian Michael Henry Adams, author of Harlem Lost and Found. “How could we split them up?”

Community members also fault the university for moving forward with its request that the state use eminent domain to push out several private businesses that are in the path of its new campus but refuse to sell.

Columbia, which hosted a neighborhood Q&A about its master plan on July 12 and will host another tomorrow, sees these criticisms as a natural part of the process of reconciling community expectations with the realities of urban planning. “(Plan 197-A) sets a framework for urban development,” says LaVerna Fountain, a university spokesperson. “Ours fills in the details.”

For Harlem residents, though, the devil is in the details. If the turnout on July 9 is a harbinger of turnout on August 15, when Community Board 9 holds its public hearing on 197-C, then Columbia’s plan could wind up—like the buildings it purports to save—in need of serious retooling.

 

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