The 197-A Committee of Community Board 9 last night revised its recommendations about rezoning Manhattanville and discussed establishing a "Community Benefits" agreement with Columbia that would force Columbia to be accountable to community demands.
The meeting was one of a series that the 197-A Committee has held over the past few months to decide the board's approach to the rezoning of Manhattanville. When the process ends, the board will propose a framework, called a 197-A plan, that will serve as a recommendation to New York City's Planning Commission about how to rezone West Harlem.
At the same time, Columbia administrators have also indicated that they are preparing to present the city with plans for the area. Administrators have devoted much energy over the past year on the University's expansion into Manhattanville.
Representatives from the Pratt Institute, which has worked with the 197-A committee to design the plans, presented changes last night to earlier proposals. The changes came after earlier meetings with both the board and with the Coalition to Preserve Community. Many recommendations were altered following the advice of the CPC: a packet distributed at the meeting which listed the committee's proposed recommendations had a column for original recommendations, a column for the CPC suggestions, and a column for the revised recommendations.
Much of the discussion involved the zoning designations of the area that Columbia plans to expand into, ranging from about 125th Street to 133rd Street and from west of 12th Avenue to Broadway. According to the map distributed at the meeting, part of the area would remain zoned for manufacturing, which would allow only for two-story buildings, and part of the district would be zoned for mixed-use, which would allow for much higher buildings.
Tom Demott, a member of the CPC steering committee, was concerned when a Pratt representative said that the mixed-use zoned area may allow for 20-story buildings. "From our perspective, those kinds of heights are surprising," Demott said.
The newest development centered around the "Community Benefits" program, which the organizers of the meeting brought up. Community Benefits is an agreement signed between a community and an institution that would require the institution to promise certain things to the community before building. Ron Shiffman, a representative of the Pratt Institute, cited two examples of Community Benefits agreements that had been successful: one signed before the building of the Staples Center in Los Angeles, and another before Harvard University's recent expansion.
There are obstacles to this sort of agreement. Most importantly, Columbia is not required to sign one. Shiffman acknowledged that only political pressure from the community and from New York City could force the University to agree to a contract.
If Columbia did agree to the terms of such an agreement, Shiffman said it would be legally binding and said he hoped to hire someone from NYU's law school to help draft an agreement. Some community members, including a local resident who said he had been around in 1968 when tension between the University and the neighborhood was at a high point, were skeptical that Columbia would follow through on promises it made.
Board member Carolyn Kent said she hoped that, when discussing such an agreement, the community would insist on job training from Columbia, and said she was disappointed with the figures presented at the Community Advisory Board meetings. "One of the things that bothers me is that when Columbia talks about jobs, they mean how many maintenance workers they are going to hire," Kent said.
Nell Geiser, CC '06, asked about the release date of the 197-A plan. Some board members expressed hope that they would be ready by June, because the board does not meet in July or August, but Mercedes Narciso, a representative from the Pratt Institute, said that was unlikely, and that the committee was pushing to finish the plans in August so that the full board could vote in September.
The 197-A plan does not only focus upon the rezoning of Manhattanville. It also addressed more general land-use issues in West Harlem, including advocating a Second Avenue subway that would extend to Broadway, the construction of the Harlem Piers project, and converting the unpopular MTA bus depot into a compressed natural gas facility.