Bowing for Columbia: West Harlem Gets the Protection It’s Been Waiting For

When Columbia announced its plans to create a new 17-acre campus in the Manhattanville neighborhood of West Harlem, those living just next door were understandably worried. The university has had a fractious relationship with Morningside Heights, from the controversial 1960s gymnasium that sparked riots to its imposing campus that is seen as off-limits to outsiders. While the promise of jobs and development in a moribund industrial neighborhood was appealing, the cost of living with Columbia seemed greater than the reward.West Harlem Rezoning Map

It is not even Columbia per se that had people most worried, but the gentrification a university expansion could stoke when construction gets underway. Developers flocked to Central and East Harlem during the boom, but West Harlem saw less development in part because Manhattanville served as a buffer. With that area redeveloped, new towers and speculative development could run rampant.

Now West Harlem is winning the protections it has long sought, as a rezoning orchestrated by the Department of City Planning and Borough President Scott Stringer is taking shape.

“We had to create a balance between helping a university that will have such a positive impact for New York City, in terms of jobs and economic opportunities; at the same time we have to make sure we return the favor to West Harlem and protect the people who have always been there,” Stringer told The Observer.

Back when Columbia got Manhattanville rezoned in 2008–the area was dedicated to manufacturing, historically a hub of meatpacking–the community, including Stringer, hoped more of the neighborhood would be included than just the 17 acres Columbia had its eye on. At the time, the city said it would consider doing so in a later rezoning, which has been quietly in the works ever since. Initially proposed to cover 125th Street to 145th Street, the current plans call for pushing the protections an additional 10 blocks north, to 155th Street. The area is bounded by Riverside Drive on the west and roughly St. Nicholas Avenue on the east.

The rezoning encompasses nearly 100 blocks, making it the largest in northern Manhattan.

The rezoning will not reduce the density of the district so much as ensure it remains consistent with its surroundings vis-a-vis contextual zoning, which places certain height and massing restrictions on buildings. This helps prevent sliver buildings and other out-of-scale development, such as the Aerial towers by Extell that frustrated Upper West Siders a few years ago. There will still be some upzonings, such as along 145th Street and possibly some of the avenues, which, when coupled with the city’s inclusionary housing program, are meant to spur affordable housing.

Beyond housing, the plan will help allow for City College’s future growth, as well as setting aside some land for manufacturing or other economic development opportunities. Ground-floor retail will also be encouraged in the district. City Planning Commission Chair Amanda Burden and Stringer will be on hand at a community board meeting tomorrow night to explain more.

Stringer noted that the university was entirely supportive of the new plan. “The goal for me, as it relates to the Columbia expansion, is to make sure it doesn’t overrun West Harlem, but to coexist with West Harlem,” he said.

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Bowing for Columbia: West Harlem Gets the Protection It’s Been Waiting For