Residents and city officials heavily scrutinized Columbia’s plan to erect a 34-story high-rise on the former McDonald’s site at a Community Board 9 meeting last Thursday.
These concerns came in light of Manhattanville Development Vice President Marcelo Velez’s announcement that the high-rise will include 142 graduate and faculty housing units and sit adjacent to a hotel and conference center. The University’s initial plans, which focused on solely developing a hotel in the vacant space, received pushback from faculty and students who argued that Columbia should prioritize their housing needs.
The Manhattanville expansion, which comes as a response to the University’s dire need for campus space, has drawn scrutiny from residents in the past for increasing rent pressure, displacing residents, and improper land acquisition. The new campus, which was proposed in 2003 to create an additional 5 to 6 million square feet of space for Columbia, featuring modern educational and research facilities, will ultimately extend between 125th and 133rd Streets.
In September, the University announced the closure of McDonald’s, a long-time community establishment, and proposed the development of a mixed-use high-rise in its place on 125th Street. Last month, the University also acquired the Tuck-it-Away Self-Storage building, which led to a number of lawsuits over Columbia’s use of eminent domain.
The University plans on submitting paperwork to the city to begin working on the McDonald’s site in December, with intentions of beginning excavations in January 2020.
McDonald’s will be relocated to the commercial space in the lower floors of the new high-rise. At nearly 400 feet tall, the high-rise will match the height of other current neighborhood luxury high-rise projects such as Union Theological Seminary and the Vandewater.
In response to updates regarding Manhattanville construction, community members and city officials questioned University representatives on Columbia’s intentions to uphold its obligations to the community, citing construction concerns and unfulfilled promises from the Manhattanville General Project Plan.
Citing the building’s height, New York City council member Mark Levine, who represents Morningside Heights, said the proposed high-rise exemplifies the fight to rezone the neighborhood in order to limit building heights as part of the solution to address overdevelopment in the area. He also noted that the building, while providing housing for Columbia students and faculty, would not help with the affordable housing shortage.
“This is a community that is under siege by overdevelopment,” Levine said. “The project going up in 125th [has] no affordable housing for our community.”
Many of the concerns centered around the fact that the University initially designated the McDonald’s site to be the new location for the Columbia Secondary School for Math, Science, & Engineering in order to acquire the land through eminent domain, according to Manhattanville documents. However, Tricia Shimamura, the director of government relations in the Office of Government and Community Affairs, said the Department of Education determined the space was not appropriate for a school, which put a halt to the University’s plans.
Assembly member Dan O’Donnell, who represents Morningside Heights and the Upper West Side, said he would take the University to court over the zoning of the building, citing the University’s original promise under eminent domain.
“The McDonald’s site was promised not to be built as a high-rise as a condition in order to negotiate the zoning and the CBA, so it's a condition precedent to all those agreements,” O’Donnell said. “And if you don’t believe me, we’re going to find out in court to find out who’s right. I will fight to the death to stop you from building this building.”
The University did not directly respond to O’Donnell.
According to Miriam Aristy-Farer, a CB9 member, the DOE did not consult the community board before rejecting the plan to build a school at the former McDonald’s site.
“I understand the then-Mayor Bloomberg, who had an agenda to privatize all of our education and eliminate public schools, turned down the school, but fast forward to 2020, Community Board 9 and the two schools Columbia put in our community need space,” she said.
CSS, which was supposed to be temporarily located at 123rd Street, but has been there for over a decade, has faced perennial space shortages for its 650 students. Board member Adam Powers said he attended CSS for middle school and saw these problems firsthand.
“Looking forward I think trying to keep that in mind and seeing if there is something that can be worked out—that would make a big difference in alleviating those problems,” Powers said.
CB9 member Daniel Cohen added that the University did not include the community board in discussions over what would go into the McDonald’s site when it began drawing up plans.
Residents were also concerned with day-to-day disruptions due to construction. Claremont Avenue resident Cynthia Weinrich, who attended the meeting, said she anticipates residents having to face an unseemly view because of the high-rise.
“The placement [of this high-rise] on that corner is completely inappropriate,” Weinrich said. “It’s going to suffocate the corner.”
Anah Klate, a resident of 31 Tiemann Place, which sits adjacent to the McDonald’s lot, said her street has lost access to parking spaces over the years and anticipates that the construction and new buildings will further decrease parking availability.
“The new [Manhattanville] buildings bring in an enormous amount of light pollution that never existed before in that part of town, to the point where I’m several blocks away and I can read in my apartment in the middle of the night by the lights of those buildings,” she said.
Community members and city officials also expanded on general concerns regarding the openness of the Manhattanville campus for residents. Kaila Kelsey, a CB9 resident and student in the area, said she feared the expansion would further isolate youth from accessing Columbia, despite the campus’ extensive reach in her community.
Cohen said the Manhattanville buildings have failed to provide the community with adequate access. CB9 held a meeting in the Forum in September, but the building closed at 8 p.m., which prevented Cohen and others from getting to the meeting space, he said.
“It’s an illusion of community output of openness if you really don’t have access to it,” Cohen said. “The opportunity for access is extremely limited and extremely selective.”
Velez responded that the design of the buildings is intended to draw the community in and allow them access to their services, such as the wellness center in the Jerome L. Greene Science Center and the meeting spaces in the Forum.
Shimamura also added that the University has many educational and internship services and initiatives for youth, and that the expansion is intended to open up the University to the community.
“We are constantly trying to find new ways to reach our youth … and if we’re not doing a good enough job in telling you about them, then let’s work on doing a better job,” she said.
Shimamura also offered to meet with public commenters to hear their concerns after the meeting.