Harlem Tells Columbia ‘No’ (and Whispers ‘Negotiate’)

The West Harlem community board voted firmly against Columbia University’s expansion, 31-2, Monday night, which, while purely advisory, is going to put a lot of pressure on the school to make at least some changes to its plan.

But it was not a through-and-through rejection: The resolution listed 10 conditions under which the board would have supported the plan to turn 17 acres just north of 125th Street and west of Broadway into new classroom and laboratory space.

“I think there are several items that the community has mentioned in their 10 points that leave a lot of room for the university to have conversations with the community about,” said Joseph A. Ienuso, Columbia’s executive vice president for facilities, who attended the meeting in a school auditorium in the neighborhood. “I think the community’s importance on environmental sustainability, sustainable design; the mutual interest in a good plan for the community, a plan that will lead to jobs and long-term growth for the community–I think again there are several issues that we could really come together on.”

Mr. Ienuso happened to mention some of the easy ones. Columbia has, for example, already said it would build according to LEED environmental standards (the community board asked for a platinum rating, the highest set of standards). But the community board also was asking the university to remove the threat of eminent domain and change its plan for a seven-story subterranean bathtub under the entire footprint.

Asked whether the university could still accomplish 85 percent its goals since it now has acquired 85 percent of the footprint without resorting to eminent domain, Mr. Ienuso replied, “That’s a good question that’s part of the analysis that we will be looking at between the draft [environmental impact statement] and the final EIS.”

Columbia had similarly treated last week’s vote by a committee of the community board as a starting point for negotiations, a notion that was ridiculed by one board member during Monday’s meeting.

“The train to negotiate has left the station,” Walter South said. “These points are non-negotiable.”

Community board votes are advisory, however, which makes it hard to argue that they are not starting points for negotiations that go on while the proposal gets reviewed by the borough president, which also gives an advisory opinion, and, ultimately, the City Council, which has the power to accept or reject a rezoning.

“They laid a framework for negotiations,” City Council Member Robert Jackson said. “I’m looking at this with open eyes and an open mind.”