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Approval for Columbia Expansion Seems Likely

November 27, 2007

By Dorian Davis

The first conflict at yesterday’s New York City Planning Commission hearing on Columbia University’s 17-acre Manhattanville expansion plan, a scheme designed by Renzo Piano Building Workshop and Skidmore, Owings and Merrill (SOM), was not over a building but a chair.

“Twelve urban planners, and none of them can plan a seating arrangement,” said Harlem resident Nellie Hester Bailey as she took a seat reserved for Columbia staff in the Commission’s cramped 50-seat auditorium. A two-hour meeting ensued, during which community members, who are upset about the university’s plan to displace 5,000 residents and use eminent domain in aid of building a new campus, held up placards that read “Harlem Is Not For Sale” and chanted choruses of “We Shall Not Be Moved.” And at the end of the hearing, the Commission’s vote on two dueling proposals for Manhattanville—one from Columbia and an alternative from the local Community Board, which encourages economic development without raising the specter of eminent domain—ended in a draw. But this vote does not necessarily represent a stalemate and Columbia looks set to get most of what it wants.

The Commission issued a series of recommendations to bring the competing interests of preservation and urban renewal into closer alignment. It grants many elements proposed by Columbia: a sprawling, mixed-use campus with 4.8 million square feet of box-shaped buildings, and 2 million square feet of subterranean space. But the Commission’s compromise also lowers height restrictions for buildings at the north end of campus by 50 percent—down to 120 feet—in order to better serve the neighborhood context. And it includes a change in construction sequencing to ensure that 100,000 square feet of public parks and open spaces are completed in the first phase, set to end in 2015.

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Proponents of the Columbia plan seem pleased with the Commission’s compromise. Marilyn Taylor, a partner at SOM, says that the height restrictions could help to resolve the aesthetic tension between past and present, and create a cohesive streetscape along Broadway. “These buildings can be more of a transition between our [larger] proposals to the south and the community to the north,” she observes.

But residents are less enthusiastic about the modifications. “Had those recommendations been combined with the retention of historic buildings, the plan could have been more appealing,” says Michael Henry Adams, a local historian and author of Harlem Lost and Found. “I’d rather see a couple of hundred-story towers erected and have some of these historic buildings preserved than to have them all replaced with shorter buildings.”

The university plans to petition the state to start eminent domain proceedings against several old warehouses, including Hudson Moving and Storage, built in 1903 and listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

With the Commission’s review finished, the dueling development plans next move to City Council for a vote in December. That hearing will be the final chance for opponents to halt Columbia’s expansion, or it will give the university the green light for building an expanded campus some 10 blocks north of its existing facilities.

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