BY ELIZABETH KIM
A recently unveiled plan by Columbia University to build a 34-story residential building at a Harlem site once slated for the redevelopment of a public school has sparked protests by residents who are now accusing the institution of breaking a promise it made years ago to the community.
The fight, which involves a prominent slice of real estate on 125th Street and Broadway, has resurfaced longstanding tensions between residents and a university that has over the years been viewed as a development juggernaut. It comes amid Columbia's ongoing 17-acre, $6.3 billion northward expansion into Manhattanville, which has spurred fears of gentrification and questions over whether the university has truly integrated the largely low-income neighborhood into its plan.
The latest controversy stems from a commitment Columbia made nearly 14 years ago to create a new public secondary school in the neighborhood. In 2007, Columbia Secondary School for Math, Science, & Engineering opened inside a pre-existing school building on 123rd Street between Amsterdam and Morningside Avenues. The arrangement, which involved sharing space with P.S. 125, an elementary school, and KIPP Star, a charter middle school, was considered temporary. Under a community benefits agreement signed in 2009 and which was later amended, Columbia agreed to provide the school with a parcel of land through a 49-year, rent-free lease.
The site it had in mind was 600 West 125th Street, which had for decades been home to a popular drive-thru McDonald's and which Columbia had purchased in 2004.
"This was the site that everybody had agreed to," said Barry Weinberg, the chair of Community Board 9. "It's a block and a half over from the (current) school. People did not want it developed into a very tall tower."
But at the most recently community board meeting, Columbia officials presented exactly that plan: a 400-foot-high tower containing 142 units of housing for graduate students and faculty. The redevelopment would encompass both the former McDonald's site and a neighboring row of warehouses.
"It seems pretty obvious to me that people who have been here a long time feel this is a bait and switch," Weinberg told Gothamist.
Those who attended the meeting and expressed their anger about the project included state Assembly member Daniel O’Donnell, who represents Morningside Heights and the Upper West Side. Citing Columbia's agreement with the community, he threatened to take the matter to court, according to a Columbia Spectator story.
"I will fight to the death to stop you from building this building," he was quoted as saying.
O'Donnell did not immediately respond to a request for an interview.
Columbia has argued that it did in fact fulfill its promise by having offered the land to the city. But in a decision that infuriated school parents and prompted conspiracy theories from residents, the Department of Education turned down the proposal in 2011. Instead, the DOE said it would use funds from Columbia to renovate the existing building as the school's long-term location.
Today, eight years later, crowding at the school, which serves grades 6 through 12, has only worsened, according to Deirdre McIntosh-Brown, who serves as the chair for CB9's committee for youth education and libraries.
"It's totally inadequate," she said. "They are a middle school and high school in an elementary school building."
City Council member Mark Levine, who represents the district and whose son attends Columbia Secondary School, told Gothamist that while Columbia may be off the hook legally, he believed the university and the DOE had a "moral obligation" to provide another location for the school.
"The community is rightly extremely upset," said Levine, who also attended the community board meeting. "This problem is going to get worse."
Levine, along with other residents, has targeted his criticism on Columbia's failure to incorporate any affordable housing in the project. In addition to Columbia's massive expansion, the area is undergoing significant redevelopment. Two other educational institutions, Jewish Theological Seminary and Union Theological Seminary, have brokered development deals as a way to generate income—a 32-story condo tower and a 42-story condo and institutional building, respectively.
"This is a community that is under assault by development," Levine said.
Morningside Heights Community Coalition, a resident group, several years ago launched an effort to rezone the neighborhood, including the area along 125th Street, to require affordable housing and impose height restrictions. In light of Columbia's latest plan, they have accelerated the process.
"Ideally, no buildings should be built without affordable housing," said Robert Stern, a member of the coalition. "We’re all in a desperate situation in the city."
Levine supports the rezoning, calling the 125th Street site "an island of vulnerability."
He added: "Unfortunately this building is exhibit A for why we need to do this."
But the community-based rezoning proposal, which is moving forward without approval of City Planning, will not likely come in time to affect the 125th Street plan.
Columbia, which opened the first phase of its Manhattanville development early last year, said that it is seeking to start construction on the building in early 2020 and complete it by the summer of 2022.
In a statement, Victoria Benitez, a spokesperson for the university, said that the project "will enliven this iconic intersection as well as 125th Street to the west with active ground-floor uses and streetscape improvements, creating a pedestrian-friendly corridor and gateway to the Manhattanville campus and to retail, open-space, and the West Harlem Piers Park."