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[IMGCAP(1)]NEW YORK CITY-The Empire State Development Corp. board of directors has adopted the Columbia University General Project Plan and authorized a public hearing to formally approve the University’s proposed expansion this fall. The $6.28-billion Manhattanville expansion project, which has had some opposition from local Harlem residents, who worry about displacement, will add up to 6.8 million sf of new facilities in up to 16 new buildings and in an adaptively reused existing building.

In adopting the plan, the ESDC board accepted the findings of a neighborhood conditions study conducted by the consulting firm AKRF Inc. and an audit of that study by Earth Tech Inc. “Both reports found that the area surrounding the project’s 17 buildings was mainly characterized by aging, poorly maintained and functionally obsolete industrial buildings, with little indication of recent reinvestment to revive their generally deteriorated conditions,” according to a prepared statement.

[IMGCAP(2)]The ESDC’s mission is to “provide the assistance and service to businesses in order to encourage economic investment and prosperity in New York State.” As part of that mission, according to an anonymous urban affairs professional in New York City, among other things, “the agency can override zoning, exercise eminent domain and condemn property.

The ESDC determined the 17-acre area in Harlem “blighted” on Thursday, and according to the anonymous urban affairs source, once the ESDC determines an area is blighted, it has the authority to “undertake the condemnation.” The source notes that this is the same concept that was used in Atlantic Yards. In that case, the US Court of Appeals court rejected a lawsuit that challenged the constitutionality of the state’s use of eminent domain for the site.

The source continues that it is true that the ESDC hasn’t been as active as it was a long time ago, but they note that the agency has been “an important part of urban revitalization.” The source says that without the ESDC on board, the project could be delayed and might be more expensive to complete.

The urban affairs professional says that sometimes, people lose site of a critically important aspect about a city’s survival. “Columbia University is an extremely important part of the 21st century. Cities are about intellectual power, and if you don’t have the institutions in that city growing and thriving, they will have more of a difficulty of advancing.” The source continues that “every now and then, the Government has to look beyond the immediate neighborhoods and look at the big picture.”

Columbia continues to negotiate to acquire the properties within the project site that are not under its ownership or control. According to a prepared statement from Columbia, it “will not at any point ask ESDC to exercise eminent domain over the seven residential buildings—less than 4% of the properties—while they are occupied,” however, the University has requested that the ESDC consider exercising its eminent domain authority over the “old industrial area does not prevent the City and State from achieving the public interest goals in the proposed academic expansion, with all of the long-term economic, educational and civic benefits it will bring to the local community and all New Yorkers.”

An anonymous local real estate attorney, not involved in the proposed project, tells GlobeSt.com that the adoption means that the ESDC will invoke its eminent domain power to assist the University in acquiring the remaining properties that it does not already own if need be. In that case, “those who are holding out for whatever reason,” the source says, “will be forced to sell to the ESDC.” The source notes that obviously there will be an outcry as there has already been for years.

According to Columbia’s statement, “the University has worked successfully over the past few years to negotiate fair deals with all of the other private landowners in Manhattanville area—many of whom speak enthusiastically of Columbia’s good faith and fair dealing in meeting their economic and business needs, and helping them find convenient new locations that will keep jobs in New York City. The University remains committed to reaching mutually beneficial agreements with the two remaining commercial property owners on these blocks if they will agree to do so.”

The principal portion of the site is bordered by and includes 12th Ave on the west, Broadway on the east, 125th Street on the south and 133rd Street on the north. The project site also includes an irregularly shaped area east of Broadway, from 131st Street to 134th Street. The project site is part of a larger 35-acre area that was rezoned by New York City at the end of 2007. All project costs are Columbia University’s responsibility and ESDC will be reimbursed for any costs it incurs in assisting the project’s implementation. Columbia will fund a relocation program that will provide relocation assistance at no cost to any residential and non-residential occupants that may be displaced by the project.

The planned additional space will be used primarily for graduate-level teaching facilities, academic research, housing and recreation, and open active ground floor uses. The proposal also calls for the development of open spaces accessible to the general public, including widened sidewalks, mid-block open spaces, a large square and smaller open spaces. The project is expected to add 14,000 construction jobs and 6,000 new university jobs.

As GlobeSt.com previously reported, Philip Pitruzzello, VP for Manhattanville Capital Construction with Columbia University, said that the University has been around 250 years and expects to be there for another 250. “There is something very fundamental about the needs to expand,” he said. “It’s long-term, well-planned and far reaching.” Pitruzzello further explained that “when planning long term, it’s usually not the first plan that gets used. Plans must be flexible since they will be there over a long period of time.”

The project would be constructed in two phases over the course of approximately 25 years. Phase I would be carried out in two stages beginning in late 2008 and construction of Phase II would begin in approximately 2025, with full build out of the project expected to occur in 2033. Construction would generally move from south to north.

According to filed project plans, each construction stage would begin with “necessary property acquisition, relocation, above-grade abatement and remediation followed by demolition as needed for development of the project.” Columbia plans to design, build and operate the project’s residential and academic buildings to achieve a minimum LEED Silver certification from the USGBC.

The project site consists of 66 tax lots. As of June 15, 2008, Columbia either owned or had contracts to purchase 53 of these lots, representing more than 80% of the lots on the project site. The City owns four lots, two of which are leased to MTA for public transportation purposes and two of which are operated by the City’s Department of Housing Preservation and Development. The lots owned or controlled by Columbia together with the City-owned lots comprise over 85% of the project site area. Con Edison owns one lot, which it uses for public utility purposes.

Gov. David Paterson, says in a prepared statement that “this project underscores Columbia’s commitment to its neighbors by providing benefits to many segments of the local community: partnering with local secondary schools to enhance math and science curricula; providing scholarships for local residents, medical facilities for school-age children and funds for development; and by setting a 40% goal of minority and women labor.”

Congressman Charles Rangel says that he looks forward to the public hearings “and the process moving along so that there is no delay in establishing the public & private partnerships needed to improve housing, education, job creation and other issues in the Manhattanville area.”

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