The New York City Council paved the way for Columbia's Manhattanville expansion Wednesday by approving a combination of rezoning plans melding elements of proposals from the University and Community Board 9.
The approval of the rezoning plans, known as 197-c and 197-a, followed a $150 million community benefits agreement and is the penultimate step in the rezoning process which Columbia must undergo before beginning construction in Manhattanville. Mayor Michael Bloomberg will now have five days in which to veto the vote, although his past support for the Columbia expansion suggests that he will approve the Council’s decision.
“It’s a rezoning that in addition to solidifying New York as one of the higher educational capitals of the world, it is also a rezoning that will facilitate the creation of 6,000 additional and permanent jobs in our city,” Council Speaker Christine Quinn said.
Columbia’s 197-c was approved with 35 votes in favor, 5 against, and 6 abstentions. Many who favored the plan explained that, while they are concerned about the University’s possible use of eminent domain to acquire the three unattained commercial properties in the expansion footprint, they supported Columbia’s vision based on their confidence in the local council members—Robert Jackson, D-Manhattanville and Washington Heights, and Inez Dickens, D-Morningside Heights and Central Harlem.
City Councilman Tony Avella, D-Queens, raised concerns that the Council’s approval of the expansion plan would set a precedent for the use of eminent domain in situations not essential to public good. “Nobody’s private property in this city is safe,” Avella, who voted against Columbia’s plan, said. “Anytime a developer or a private institution with political influence comes along, nobody is safe.”
“This is not just about Columbia University,” Councilman Vincent Ignizio, R-Staten Island, said. “This is about a powerful entity which seeks to take land from honest landowners who are paying their taxes.”
During the general Council meeting, members of the Coalition to Preserve Community, a local anti-expansion group, waved “Bollinger Bucks” in the air in protest. When the final vote was officially announced, activists were cleared from the chamber amidst shouts of “Harlem not for sale!” and “You’re clearing us out but you’re clearing out West Harlem!” Outside, Columbia officials exchanged celebratory hugs.
The full vote came after three committees convened to discuss and ultimately approve both plans to pass on to the rest of City Council. Members of the Land Use committee and the Zoning & Franchises and Planning, Dispositions, & Concessions subcommittees raised concerns about eminent domain, the transparency of the process, and vote’s timing.
There had been confusion among activists, as well as some Council members, as to whether the vote would take in fact place Wednesday, as many expected it to occur in mid-January, closer to the legal deadline for the Council vote.
“I think they’re rushing through the vote so they can give Columbia a Christmas present,” said Council member Charles Barron, D-Brooklyn, who voted against the University’s 197-c plan. Barron made a motion, which was later denied, at the committee hearing for the vote to be delayed until the January 15 deadline in order to “have more time for the community to engage in the process.” Council member Jackson spoke out against Barron's motion, citing last week’s public hearing—in which over 90 speakers gave testimony—as evidence of the community’s participation in the process.
Jackson and Dickens pointed to years of consultation with local community boards to refute charges that the process has been rushed. “Whether we agree or disagree with whatever came out of those presentations, it can never be said that the process was unfair and did not allow for the public to have a say so,” Dickens said, receiving boos and coughs from audience members.
Prior to the Land Use committee meeting, the Coalition to Preserve Community held a rally on the City Hall steps.
“What we’re seeing is the worst kind of undemocratic, unparticipatory process that you can imagine,” Tom DeMott, CC ’80 and leader of the CPC, said.
“This vote today is one of political expediency for the purpose of her mayoral bid,” Nellie Bailey, president of the Harlem Tenants Council, said of Quinn.
Quinn addressed accusations of scheduling the vote for political gains in a press conference following the joint committee hearing, calling them “absurd statement[s],” and stating that it is the Land Use committee’s duty to vote in favor of the interests of the neighborhoods at hand.
Also outside, student activists voiced frustration with City Council members who had seemed visibly confused by some of the details of the plans during the committee hearings.
“One Council member [Gale Brewer, D-Upper West Side] asked, ‘did the Community Board even vote on this?’” Samantha Barron, BC ’09, said. Brewer also asked about what the next step of the process would be for the two Manhattanville rezoning plans, to which Land Use committee chair Melinda Katz, D-Queens, replied would be a vote by the Empire State Development Corporation.
But City Council’s vote Wednesday evening was final, and needs only to be signed by Mayor Bloomberg. The ESDC will not vote on the plans, but rather is responsible for determining whether Manhattanville is a “blighted” area, and therefore whether it is eligible for potential evocation of eminent domain.
University President Lee Bollinger released a statement expressing gratitude and optimism for the Council's approval Wednesday evening. “As a result, not only will our universities continue to attract creative minds with the determination to advance knowledge in service of humankind; they will remain a vibrant source of good, middle-income jobs for a diversity of people seeking to improve their lives here,” he said.
Sara Vogel contributed to this article.