'Bollinger Dollars,' 'Personal Vindictive' at Columbia Vote

Columbia University’s proposed expansion plan received the City Planning Commission’s approval handily today, but it wasn’t as easy as some expected.

For one, there was the constant heckling of the commissioners before, during and after the meeting. And then there was the surprise “no” vote by Commissioner Karen Phillips, Public Advocate Betsy Gotbaum’s appointee, and the astonishing abstention by Irwin Cantor, a commissioner who represents the Queens Borough President. Finally, Columbia is being forced to reduce the heights of two of its buildings.

Before the meeting began, the crowd of about 45 people, including many residents and activists in Harlem, where the five-block, 20-year expansion will take place, started out chanting “Harlem’s Not for Sale” and singing “God Is on Our Side.” One man held up a book showing Commission Chairwoman Amanda Burden posing in a sumptuously appointed interior; he shouted, “Rich, rich, rich." Another one handed out “Bollinger Dollars,” named after the president of Columbia University.

The heckling continued as the commissioners struggled to get the meeting off the ground and explain. After nine commissioners gave rather lengthy explanations for why they were approving the plan, Ms. Phillips took the floor. She listed a number of elements of the plan that she wished would be changed, among them, a land swap between the moving company Tuck-It-Away and Columbia to reduce the need for eminent domain. She went on at such length that one opponent burst out, “This is excruciating. Just say ‘yes.’” As it turned out, a few minutes later, Ms. Phillips voted no.

Mr. Cantor spoke a little while later, and praised Ms. Burden for “enduring the most abusive personal vindictive.” One heckler shouted out, “Maybe you should be Sean Bell—then you would know what vindictive is about.” But, while lauding the economic development that Columbia’s expansion promises to bring to upper Manhattan, Mr. Cantor objected to the state’s possible use of eminent domain to acquire some commercial properties that Columbia could not buy outright, on the grounds that less government was good government, and that, over the next 20 years, land owners would be stuck in limbo, unable to improve their parcels and yet unwilling to sell them off.

“I cannot vote in favor of Columbia University’s plans; I cannot vote against it either,” he said.

To comply with the commission’s demands, the university will have to lower the maximum height of one of its proposed buildings from 240 feet to half as tall, and another building from 260 feet to 180 feet. However, Columbia will build plenty of other tall buildings, according to the final environmental impact statement (PDF), one as high as 300 feet when mechanical floors are included.