After a tumultuous and bitter meeting replete with heckling, the New York City Planning Commission voted yesterday to approve Columbia University’s much-debated plan for a 17-acre campus expansion in Harlem. The plan now goes to the City Council, which is expected to modify it before giving final approval.
The commission’s decision was an important step in the often-difficult process known as the Uniform Land Use Review Procedure, or Ulurp.
Of the 12 commission members present for a special public meeting, 10 voted in favor of the university’s expansion. One member, Karen A. Phillips, who represents the city’s public advocate and has been influential in Harlem as a former president of the Abyssinian Development Corporation, voted no. Another, Irwin G. Cantor, who represents the Queens borough president, abstained, citing provisions in the plan that would allow the university to press the government to use eminent domain to acquire land for the expansion.
Adding a wrinkle to the project, the Planning Commission unanimously approved a similar redevelopment proposal, a community-initiated rezoning plan known as a Section 197a document, which had been put forward by Community Board 9.
The differences between the Section 197a document and the Columbia University plan will have to be resolved, but Amanda M. Burden, the chairwoman of the Planning Commission, said in a statement that she did not think those differences were great.
Members of Community Board 9, local property owners, some community groups and residents of the affected neighborhood oppose the university’s proposal. They say small businesses and tenants would be displaced by a project that would create a private enclave.
“It’s wrong to take private property and hand it over to another private owner,” said Ann Whitman, whose property would be condemned by the state under the expansion plan. “We’re in the fight for our lives. My neighbors, black, white and Latino, are standing up for right against wrong.”
People on both sides of the issue expect further demonstrations and, possibly, lawsuits.
“We’ll stand in front of those bulldozers,” said Tom DeMott, a leader of the opposition Coalition to Preserve Community. “This battle is not over by a long shot.”
The City Council is expected to hold a hearing on the project next month and to vote on it in January.
Many people who crammed into the commission’s meeting room in Lower Manhattan booed and hissed throughout the proceeding. Critics have said that the scale, density and design of the project would overwhelm the neighborhood in Harlem, an area that has been subject to rapid gentrification and rising real estate values.
The commission did make some modifications to Columbia’s proposal before approving the planned expansion, between 125th and 133rd Streets, and from Broadway west to the river. Two research buildings planned for Broadway were eliminated and replaced with university housing. In addition, the height of the proposed buildings on the west side of Broadway, at the north end of the site, were cut to 180 feet from 260 feet. On the east side of Broadway, they were cut to 120 feet from 240 feet.
Columbia completed a draft environmental impact statement for the project in June, but the criticism had begun much earlier. The university intends to build academic and residential buildings, including space for its arts and business schools and research labs.
Columbia has defended the plan as necessary and promised not to seek the use of eminent domain to make people leave their homes. (The university has left open the possibility of asking the state to use eminent domain to acquire nonresidential property.)
But Columbia’s assurances have not had the intended effect. The expansion plan was sharply criticized at a public hearing last month and was one focus of a student hunger strike earlier this month. As part of the real estate boom, colleges and universities have been erecting new buildings around the city, straining town-gown relations.
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