Tuesday, April 03, 2007

Stringing Columbia Along

We have gotten the chance to review the "West Harlem Special District" zoning proposal that was put forth this week by Manhattan BP Scott Stringer. The report makes for interesting reading, and should act as a cautionary tale for all of those who are poised to uncritically jump aboard the Columbia expansion bandwagon.

What the proposal does is to emphasize the fact that "skyrocketing real estate pressures will price longtime Harlem residents and businesses out of their communities...And new development pressures are likely to encourage a staggering amount of displacement and change to community character." A great deal of displacement is already underway, and will only increase if there is no active governmental intervention.

Which, in the best of all possible worlds, should generate an active concern among all of the area's elected officials. In this regard, the Stringer report is certainly a call to action. The challenge, as Stringer sees it, is to act to prevent an extreme makeover of the entire community and to ensure that "certain physical features of the neighborhood remain in place."

The report goes on to laud the community's "remarkable diversity of ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds," a diversity that is already being threatened by rising rents. In response, the Stringer zoning plan calls for the promotion of "inclusionary housing" bonuses that would encourage developers to build more affordable housing.

The fear here is that the entire corridor, all the way up to 145th Street, will become "dominated" by Columbia, as the continued pressure to expand drives more and more local residents and businesses out. Exactly so! What's missing, however, is a greater focus on Columbia's responsibility to mitigate the community impact of its plan.

Stringer gets it just right when he advocates forcefully for affordable housing through the use of the so-called inclusionary housing bonuses. But shouldn't this be a mandatory trade-off in order for Columbia to obtain the necessary zoning approvals for its campus expansion? And wouldn't the inclusion of a significant affordable housing initiative- as a central feature of the development plan itself - be exactly the kind of needed inclusion necessary to mitigate the "long term secondary impact" of the Columbia expansion?

The Stringer plan, by clearly underscoring the dangerous secondary impacts of the university's growth, sets the stage for the larger debate over the Columbia development. The school is asking a great deal from the city. In return, Columbia needs to give more back to the neighborhood that it has neglected over the past three decades.