August 2017
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One Neighborhood, Two Plans

manhattanville

On October 3, the City Planning Commission held a hearing on two plans for the expansion of Columbia University into Manhattanville. One was the university’s plan, the other was Manhattan Community District 9’s 197-a plan — a community-based plan for the same area. The challenge is that the plans contain, in some part, contradictory visions.

In the 19th century, the village of Manhattanville, situated around 125th Street and the Hudson River, grew to be a center of manufacturing and industry with a concentration of milk pasteurization and bottling companies, and later, auto showrooms and meat-packing. The neighborhood contains many historic buildings from its industrial past and two dramatic and beautiful pieces of transportation infrastructure — the IRT Line Broadway Viaduct at 125th Street and the Riverside Viaduct with its 26 steel arches.

Columbia University’s plan is to create a new, 17-acre campus in Manhattanville (129th to 133rd Streets between Broadway and 12th Avenue). The plan allows for the retention of a few significant historic buildings, but many would be demolished to make way for the construction of 6.8 million square feet of academic buildings, underground parking, a new park, and the creation of a new pedestrian way. The university owns a large percentage of the buildings in this area already and is planning to use eminent domain to obtain additional property and build a large underground structure.

At the hearing, MAS testified that if Columbia applied some of the goals of the community’s plan, including maintaining more of a mix of old and new buildings and a variety of uses, the urban design of their campus would be improved. MAS also urged Columbia to move its public park from the center of the campus — the least publicly accessible location — to 12th Avenue, where it would feel more public. Furthermore, the viaduct’s sculptural qualities would be celebrated if Columbia were to artfully light the filigreed steel arches.

MAS supported the community’s vision for the area west of 12th Avenue where the zoning would allow small manufacturing and related retail uses, as it would create good jobs and encourage a mixture of production and sales. In addition, MAS made two procedural recommendations related to eminent domain: urging Columbia to negotiate directly with property owners in the campus footprint, instead of using eminent domain to take their property; and, recommending the city “demap” the streets in Columbia’s campus, as opposed to using eminent domain, because “demapping” would allow for more public input.

If Columbia adopts more of the community’s vision, 12th Avenue could become the new, vibrant core of a dynamic neighborhood. With a lively mix of a new park, new campus, and dynamic small manufacturing uses under the grand filigreed arches of the historic viaduct, 12th Avenue — like Union Square — could become the exciting, stimulating focus of student and community life, connecting Columbia’s campus and the surrounding community to the waterfront.

The writer is Director of Advocacy and Policy.