Sunday, April 01, 2007

Zoning in on Columbia

In today's NY Times the intrepid Charles Bagli writes about the proposal by Manhattan BP Scott Stringer to re-zone areas around the Columbia development footprint in order to forestall the "fear that Columbia's project will draw other developers to the surrounding area and displace even more people." The fear is certainly justifiable, but we wonder whether it would make more sense to address the cause of the fear rather than to look for ways to mitigate the development after it is allowed to go forward unimpeded.

As the Times points out, rising rents are already forcing out long time residents, yet there is nothing in the Columbia plan that in any way addresses the evictions that the college plans for hundreds of low income tenants; nor for the reverberations that its $8 billion investment will have on the neighborhoods around the project. It is precisely this myopia that the borough president needs to meet head on if he is going to successfully mitigate the aftershocks of redevelopment.

There is, however, an interesting comment from Columbia in the story about the tenants that it will seek to evict: "The university said that it would relocate the tenants living in 132 apartments within the 17 acres to comparable housing." When we first read this comment we thought that it meant that there would be housing for the displaced within the 17 acres. When the sentence is re-read, however, it becomes clear that these displaced families will be relocated away from the 17 acre campus where they won't threaten to despoil its genteel ivyness.

What is curious here is that Stringer, unlike BP Markowitz in Brooklyn, has not chosen to champion an affordable housing initiative as part of the Columbia campus expansion. Markowitz, while supporting the AY development, made sure that the project contained the maximum amount of affordable housing. A similar policy response would enhance the credibility of Stringer's concern about gentrification.

Therefore the promotion of affordable housing, the more the better, would be the best approach to any effort to mitigate the gentrification impact of the Columbia development. Its absence, in the plan itself and in Stringer's response to it, means that whatever is done ex post facto will be no more than an ineffective palliative or, as one property owner told the Times, "the Stringer proposal is the equivalent of 'throwing the community a bone so that Columbia can bulldoze the neighborhood.'"

The Times gives the last word to Nick Sprayregen, the largest property owner in the line of fire. Nick continues to wonder why the university needs to take every one's property when they already have enough acreage to build a beautiful and spacious campus. As he point out, "If they only end up with 90 percent of the property, they won't build the campus?"