Columbia University Expansion

Over the next fifteen to twenty-five years, Columbia University plans to expand its campus by building an additional 6.8 million square feet of space for classrooms, research facilities, administration, housing, and parking. The proposed expansion will include redeveloping 17-acres in a neighborhood called Manhattanville from W. 125th to W. 133rd (between Broadway and 12th Avenue) just north of Columbia’s existing 36-acre campus.

The plan, which will cost approximately $6.3 billion, will take place in two phases, with Phase 1 scheduled for completion by 2015 and Phase two scheduled for completion by 2030. Columbia hails its Manhattanville campus plan as a “publicly accessible center for academic and civic life, woven into the fabric of the community.”

The University intends to seek a Silver LEED rating for the entire expansion, as well as qualify with LEED as a Neighborhood Development program. While three buildings will be preserved, the rest of the land will be cleared in order to accommodate a below-grade contiguous “basement” that will enable the promised environmentally sound design and provide as much as 65% more space than the University could otherwise garner from the 17-acres.

In order to proceed, Columbia University requested a zoning change for 35 acres through a proposed 197-c plan, which was granted by the City Council in December 2007. The proposal had previously been rejected by Manhattan Community Board 9 (CB 9) but approved by Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer (D-Manhattan) and the City Planning Commission (CPC). The plan rezoned a manufacturing area to a mixed-use area.

Before City Council’s approval, CB 9 collaborated with the Pratt Center for Community Development to create an alternative plan 197-a plan. This alternative, which was submitted to the CPC in September of 2007, was a heavily revised version of a plan that CB 9 had been developing since 1991. The 197-a plan encouraged a higher density expansion of light manufacturing uses and provisions for affordable housing, whereas Columbia’s proposal allows for significant residential and community facility expansion exclusively for use by the University.

The CPC and the City Council simultaneously approved both Columbia’s proposal and CB 9’s 197-a plan, despite the contradictions posed by the divergent plans. The CPC stated it intended to review the two plans in parallel and afford each equal treatment in the public review process. However, the rezoning plan has the force of law, while the 197-a does not.

The Coalition to Protect Community has led most of the opposition, joining forces with Nos Quedamos and other groups for public demonstrations against the expansion. Many community members, including CB 9, strongly object to the use of eminent domain. Opponents argue that the project will eliminate key manufacturing jobs in Manhattanville; that the plan will raise rents and further deteriorate much-needed low-income housing; and that the up-zoning will ruin the scale of the Manhattanville neighborhood.

In its November 26, 2007 approval of Columbia’s rezoning proposal, the DCP acknowledged that 85 businesses with 880 employees and 219 residents would be directly displaced and that rising rents would indirectly displace 1,318 residential units by 2030. The Coalition has also argued that a planned biotech research facility poses dangerous health risks to the neighborhood, though Columbia contends that materials used in the Level 3 facility are no more dangerous than those found in most hospitals.

Columbia University argues that it has much less space per student than its peer universities and must expand; that the expansion will create 1,200 construction jobs annually for the next 25 years as well as 6,000 University jobs; that the plan provides greater retail opportunities, increased community and open space (between 50,000-94,000 square feet), and better access to the waterfront for residents; and that the University has pursued the project with the community’s interests in mind. Opponents argue that the jobs the project would bring will largely be service industry jobs that pay less than the displaced manufacturing jobs.

To help advocate for additional benefits to the community from the proposed development, the community formed the West Harlem Local Economic Development Corporation to negotiate a Community Benefits Agreement (CBA) with Columbia. The two parties have not yet reached a comprehensive agreement, however, they have agreed on an outline for a CBA. The outline commits Columbia to spend $150 million over the next 12 years. Portions of that funding would go towards a community-based school run by Teachers College, as well as funding for affordable housing and legal aid services.

Columbia promises to commit more than $20 million to support affordable housing initiatives and $76 million to meet additional community needs as well as create a Teachers-College supported K-8 public school. Columbia has also agreed to ensure that 50% of the construction workforce is comprised of minorities, women, or local residents and 35% of subcontractors be enterprises run by minorities, women, or local businesses.

Columbia is seeking to acquire all of the land on which it plans to build. The University had successfully negotiated with and purchased the necessary property from all but a few property holders: Gurnam Singh and Parminder Kaur, who own two gas stations, and Nicholas Sprayregen, who owns four buildings for his Tuck-It-Away Storage business.

In December of 2008, the New York Empire State Development Corporation (ESDC) voted unanimously to invoke eminent domain. In response, Singh, Kaur, and Sprayregen filed a petition against the ESDC on January 21, 2009. The petition alleges that the area is neither blighted nor intended for civic use and therefore eminent domain cannot be used.

The Columbia University Expansion plan cleared its final governmental approval hurdle after the Public Authorities Control Board approved the plan on May 20, 2009. In December 2009, the Appellate Division of the New York State Supreme Court blocked Columbia’s proposed expansion.

The Appellate Court found that the area was, in f act, not blighted and therefore ESDC could not use eminent domain.In late June 2010, the New York State Court of Appeals overturned the lower court’s ruling and upheld the state’s determination that the area was blighted– giving Columbia University the right to seize the remaining land to complete the 17-acre expansion into West Harlem.