Is Columbia Expansion a Done Deal?

schuerman scottstrnger1h Is Columbia Expansion a Done Deal?“The way a friend put it, the borough president popped Columbia’s cherry.”

This was Jordi Reyes-Montblanc speaking, a Cuban-born New Yorker with a Santa Claus beard who chairs a community board in upper Manhattan that oversees the area where Columbia University wants to build a third campus. At times blustery, high-minded and mischievous, Mr. Reyes-Montblanc has done a lot to set the tone of the debate up there.

He usually doesn’t seem to care much what people think of him, except he didn’t want to go too far this time.

“Don’t say that’s what I said. Some wack friend of mine told me that afterwards.”

A few days earlier, on Sept. 26, Borough President Scott M. Stringer announced that he endorsed the Ivy League school’s proposal to rezone 17 acres north of 125th Street and largely west of Broadway for academic buildings. The vote of confidence came after the school agreed to contribute $33 million toward affordable housing, landscaping improvements at a public school and nearby parks, and other benefits.

Mr. Reyes-Montblanc has not been a huge fan of the expansion, or at least the way it is being undertaken. But he believes that Mr. Stringer’s deal will prompt both Columbia and a local nonprofit organization to get serious about months-long negotiations over a benefits package the university will pledge as part of the expansion. Those negotiations were, he said, in a “logjam.”

The nonprofit, the West Harlem Local Development Corporation, was, in fact, supposed to replace the type of wheeling and dealing that developers usually engage in as their projects move through the city’s approval process—the type of wheeling and dealing that, arguably, just took place with the borough president.

“From my perspective, I could not see $30-something million go toward my community and not be there to one, accept them, and two, make a point of where we stood,” Mr. Reyes-Montblanc explained. “I would have rather that it would have been different, but I am realistic.”

That realism was pretty much the attitude of Mr. Stringer, a former state assemblyman from the Upper West Side. When it comes to land-use decisions, after all, borough presidents don’t have a lot of power. Officially, they are the second step of a five-step review process known as ULURP. Their votes, like the community boards’, are purely advisory. Only the City Planning Commission, the City Council and the mayor really determine a project’s fate, and the mayor already favors Columbia’s plan.

And so Mr. Stringer decided to get as much as possible for West Harlem by playing along with the school rather than continuing to fight it. In the process, he parlayed the Bloomberg administration’s support for Columbia’s expansion into a commitment to down-zone the surrounding neighborhood—a step Mr. Stringer has advocated will do much to prevent the new campus from gentrifying the area. He also convinced Columbia to at least consider funding the studies that would be necessary for the city’s down-zoning.

“I recognized that I couldn’t do everything during our ULURP process,” Mr. Stringer told The Observer. “Certainly, we thought, whatever happens to the footprint, we must protect the surrounding community.”

Now, two controversies have erupted over Mr. Stringer’s deal—one over whether he exacted enough pounds of flesh, and the other over whether he should have been doing surgery in the first place. In any case, Mr. Stringer has skillfully parlayed his relatively weak position into a strong one, while Columbia has turned the narrative from one about community opposition into one about how much it should pay for the right to expand.

The Columbia expansion could have profound effects on the way big real estate projects get done in New York, for it is the first in which an independent local development corporation has deliberately negotiated a community benefits agreement the way others have done in Los Angeles. While some good government advocates maintain that these agreements sully the land-use review process, many others, including Columbia, maintain that as long as these agreements bear some sort of connection—“nexus” is the term of art—to the damage that a new development causes, they are the right things to do.

“Columbia alumni, faculty and students have been proud of the in-kind and financial contributions that have been made to the community over the decades,” Robert Kasdin, Columbia’s senior executive vice president, told The Observer, “and will support reasonable financial contributions to help address the impacts from the 6,000 new jobs that are being created.”