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Columbia Spectator Staff

The start of the rezoning process necessary for Columbia University to continue its planned West Harlem expansion is at least a year away, according to Columbia's Planning and Project Development Office. The current zoning and density limits of the Manhattanville area would not allow for the type of mixed residential and institutional development planned by the University.

Rezoning the area requires the completion of a Uniform Land Use Review Procedure. The process is initiated by the filing of a Land Use Review Application, which will most likely be submitted by the City of New York. The city is interested in rezoning the area because the park complex that is planned for the neighboring Harlem Piers project requires a zoning change and because the popular Fairway Market violates the current zoning.

Columbia Vice President of Facilities Management Mark Burstein said that the university does not have a set timeline for the process. "We need to get feedback from the community before we or the city can start a ULURP process," he said.

The City has examined rezoning the area in the past as part of a larger effort to shift manufacturing areas in Manhattan to housing and commercial use. In June 2002, the City Planning Commission and the city-run Economic Development Corporation issued a report that examined rezoning possibilities for the Manhattanville area, but it did not mention specific changes.

"The city or the state will decide when the submission will be made. [But] we are the largest land owner in the area and we are interested in what changes will be made," Burstein said.

The area is currently zoned for manufacturing and commercial use with height restrictions on all buildings. Restrictions are placed on the size of building with a formula known as Floor Area Ratio, which is determined by multiplying a given lot's area by a specified numerical value; two, in the case of Manhattanville. Columbia is planning an upgrade to six FAR, a dramatic increase by zoning standards.

The increase would allow Columbia to construct much larger buildings than can currently be found in the area from 125th to 133rd Streets between Broadway and 12th Avenue. Equipment such as heating and air conditioning units and elevator shafts do not count toward a building's FAR, so any structures built by Columbia would likely exceed six floors. Since Columbia plans on constructing several health sciences buildings, which typically include quite a bit of equipment, some buildings could become even taller.

The zoning will most likely also change from a manufacturing and commercial district to "mixed use" zoning. This would allow Columbia to build student and faculty residences in the area along with the various institutional structures that would make up the planned campus.

If past experience is any guide, the zoning and density changes made to Manhattanville could dramatically increase the area's property values. Similar zoning changes made in East Harlem resulted in an immediate spike in property prices and a flurry of real estate buying and speculation.

But before the application for a land use change can even be submitted, an Environmental Impact Statement must be completed. Columbia Assistant Vice President of Planning and Development Geoffrey Wiener said that "in a complicated case like this, [the EIS] would typically take a year." He added that the university plans on starting the preliminary research for the EIS in the next few months.

Wiener and Burstein both said that the university is in relatively frequent contact with the city, and the two parties are coordinating efforts. "We don't want to come out with a plan that contradicts what the city wants," Wiener said.

After the Land Use Review Application is submitted to the Department of City Planning the proposal will be sent to the Manhattan borough president, Community Board 12, and City Council. The Department of City Planning must then certify that the proposal is complete before anything may be publicly reviewed, a process with no mandated time limit.

After certification, the proposal will be submitted to the Community Board, which has 60 days to hold public hearings and make a recommendation to the City Planning Commission. Following the recommendations, the borough president has 30 days to make a recommendation to the CPC. The proposal and recommendations then come before the CPC, which must hold a public hearing and approve or disapprove of the plans.

Regardless of the CPC decision, the proposal will be sent to City Council for a vote. By statute, this vote must happen within 50 days, but depending on changes the process can take much longer. Finally, the plan will be sent to the mayor, who may veto or approve the plans within five days.

"It always takes longer than you would have liked," Wiener said.