Here Comes the High-Rise

Here Comes the High-Rise

Inside the Fight to Rezone Morningside Heights

Published on November 14, 2017

In early 2014, the Citibank at Broadway and 111th Street went down in a blaze that lasted for an entire day. The electrical fire brought out over 200 firefighters, injured seven people, and caused smoke and water damage to neighboring Samad’s Gourmet and The Heights, closing The Heights for three months. The burned-out building of the Citibank remained vacant for over two years.

Initially, Wassim Malaeb, co-owner and manager of Samad’s Gourmet, was afraid they had lost Pancho Jr., the cat that was a fixture of the homely Middle Eastern deli. But while Pancho Jr. turned up the next day, deeper concerns would settle into his mind when, not too long after, silent photographers arrived on the scene. Malaeb, who has run the store with his business partner for over 20 years, often chats heartily with his customers, but he did not have the chance to speak to the figures who remained outside, taking photographs of the building and then disappearing as quickly as they had come.

While he never found out who the photographers were, Malaeb heard a rumor: Citibank was considering buying the building that had burned down, which it had been leasing, as well as the building next door—the one in which Samad’s Gourmet is located—and constructing a high-rise on the combined plot. New York State Assemblymember Daniel O’Donnell confirmed to me that this wasn’t just a rumor—Citibank had approached the owners of nearby buildings about buying their air rights. The neighborhood’s zoning laws would have allowed such a move, and the photographers who came, Malaeb worried, were surveyors sent to assess the site.

But the deal failed to materialize. Citibank merely began rebuilding its branch on the former site, and Malaeb stopped seeing the photographers.

For now, Malaeb’s store is safe. But he does not know for how long. His store is on a month-by-month lease, and although he is on good terms with his landlord, he knows that Morningside Heights is changing. “The high-rise is going to happen—now or later,” Malaeb says, and he knows that his small business probably won’t be a part of it.

As we stand in Samad’s, he describes with some pride how the store is a part of a warm community where Columbia students return years after they have graduated and are delighted that it is still around. “It might happen to you, too,” he says and smiles.

I say goodbye to Malaeb and walk a few doors up to the corner of Broadway and 112th Street where a harbinger of what could be the new Morningside Heights is under construction. Papered over with blue, the windows bear the name “Vandewater,” a 33-story luxury development going up next to the Jewish Theological Seminary at 3080 Broadway on 122nd Street. The door is closed, and I pull the handle in vain. Like the people who came to take pictures of Samad’s, the calm blue windows are blank except for their slogan: “A Brilliant Move.” It seems like the office here on 112th street, once completed, will serve as a showcase for the actual development ten blocks north.

Real estate deals can be opaque to a Columbia undergraduate like me. But if one pays attention, it is easy to see and feel the effects of new investments on Morningside Heights—an area that spans from 110th to 125th Street, from Riverside Drive to Morningside Drive. This is a neighborhood dominated by institutions, and recently many of them, like the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, Jewish Theological Seminary, Union Theological Seminary, and Mount Sinai St. Luke’s, have been raising much-needed money by selling parts of their properties and/or development rights to enterprising developers. This has resulted in the proliferation of luxury condos that are shooting up throughout the neighborhood like mushrooms of glass and steel.

No such tower has risen on Columbia’s or Barnard’s property yet, but since they are collectively the biggest property owners in Morningside Heights, residents like Robert Stern are watching their actions closely.

Renovation and construction taking place at Jewish Theological Seminary.

To Stern, the Chair of the Zoning Committee and a member of the Executive Board at the Morningside Heights Community Coalition, this construction flurry means a rise in costs that can make life more difficult for the residents who are already there. “I like a lot of what I’m seeing,” he says. “But on the horizon I see a lot of problems that could take away the character of the neighborhood and displace people.”

In response to this anticipated displacement, the MHCC, with the support of Community Board 9, the local advisory board composed of volunteers, is advocating for a rezoning to regulate development in the neighborhood.

I: Understanding Rezoning

To put it simply, “zoning” refers to regulations around what kinds of buildings can be built and how tall they can be.

I ask Stern to explain why the MHCC is pushing for a contextual rezoning, which would impose hard height caps and mandate affordable housing. Stern worked as a documentary filmmaker and director of business development for a large telecommunications company, and is now retired. When we meet, he brings a manila envelope full of reports and press releases for me to read—he wants me to get things right.

Stern explains that in New York City, ever-rising rents drive developers to look for new neighborhoods where they can buy buildings at cheap prices. They will then either refurbish them or tear them down entirely to make way for new, often taller structures where units sell and rent at higher prices than typical in the neighborhood.

As money flows into a neighborhood, landlords with a tight budget or an eye for profit will pressure renters, both residents and shop owners, to leave, sometimes through fraudulent means. Over time, luxury towers block light and cast shadows over a community in which fewer and fewer longtime residents and their favorite shops can afford to remain.

Morningside Heights is a particularly vulnerable neighborhood because its zoning laws are relaxed in comparison to those of West Harlem in the north and the Upper West Side in the south.

As a result, Morningside Heights has become “a zoning oasis for developers,” Stern explains. That is why he and other residents want a so-called “contextual rezoning” for Morningside Heights.

“The fiber of quality of life disappears from the community,” Stern says. “It becomes a sort of bland, homogeneous, mall-like city that is no longer Morningside Heights.”

Local activists like Stern were able to successfully advocate for a contextual rezoning—in which the city puts strict height limits on new developments—on the Upper West Side in 2007 and in West Harlem in 2012.

All neighborhoods in New York City are categorized into residential, commercial, and manufacturing areas. Go shopping along Fifth Avenue or take a rollercoaster ride in Coney Island, and you’re in a “commercial” district. Walk along the Hudson River below Central Park, and the piers and warehouses you see are classified as part of a “manufacturing” district.

In 1961, when this separation of uses came into effect, Morningside Heights was zoned for “residential” use, meaning that the neighborhood was set aside for residents and their “community facilities,” like hospitals and schools. Commercial “overlays” on major streets allow for shops in residential districts, which in Morningside Heights are along Broadway, Amsterdam Avenue, and 125th Street.

Zoning regulations are also what make the suburban-like detached homes in much of Staten Island look so different from the multi-family residences in Morningside Heights. For example, leafy Todt Hill, which is one of the most expensive neighborhoods in New York City thanks to its panoramic views, is an R1-1 district: To build in the neighborhood, your lot must be a certain size, with a lot of free space for a front yard, side yards, a backyard, and parking. Morningside Heights is an R8 district, meaning it has much more lax requirements on open space.

Another difference is “floor area ratio.” FAR is the ratio of square feet in a building, adding up all the floors, to the square feet of the lot. This means that the higher you want to build, the narrower the building has to be, so it takes up less space in the lot. Whereas R1-1 has an FAR of 0.5, R8s can go up to 6.02, permitting a taller building on a lot of equal size.

What worries people like Stern is that some buildings are not built as tall as the FAR would allow. The property owner can sell these unused “air rights” to a neighboring developer, allowing them to build taller, even exceeding what would be allowed under the FAR. These kinds of transfers are “as-of-right,” which means that they can make the deal without having to apply for public and environmental reviews.

(Amanda Frame / Senior Staff Designer)

This is what has allowed for the Vandewater. In 2016 the Jewish Theological Seminary sold the 27,300 square-foot plot of land on its campus and 262,000 square feet of air rights to that land (along with an off-campus residence hall) to Savannah Real Estate Fund for $96 million in order to help fund the renovation of its campus, which will include the building of a new library and residence hall. The air rights will allow the Vandewater to rise to its envisioned 33 stories, on which residents of the luxury condominiums will enjoy a pool, gym, library, pet spa, and more.

On behalf of the MHCC, urban planner George Janes filed what is called a zoning challenge with the New York City Department of Buildings last month, alleging “various errors and omissions” in the developer’s plans that amount to “serious violations of the city’s zoning code.” According to Stern, the zoning challenge is being reviewed by the Department of Buildings.

Similarly, in 2015, Union Theological Seminary sold about 350,000 square feet of air rights in order to cover renovation costs. On its website, UTS writes that the renovation costs—totaling over $125 million—were so high that, prior to striking a deal to sell air space, the board considered “moving the Seminary outside of Morningside Heights; turning Union into a non-residential school or think tank; closing the Seminary; or partnering with another institution in the neighborhood.” Instead, a 35- to 40-story condo tower will rise in the seminary’s courtyard. Not much else is known, except that construction is set to begin sometime in 2018.

II: Neighbors Fight Back

Walk far enough down Broadway, and you will soon find two heralds of what such developments might look like—you can’t miss them. Ariel West and Ariel East, turquoise spires on either side of 100th Street, rise to 31 and 37 stories respectively, looming far above neighboring buildings. A witless Columbia student like me may use them as a landmark for just this reason, but their height was controversial when they were being built in the mid-2000s. Many saw the developments, which were fueled by the sale of air rights, as out of context with the surrounding mid-rise buildings. “I loved my neighborhood,” a resident told the New York Times in 2007, when the towers were completed. “Now I can’t walk from 100th Street to Broadway because I cannot—I cannot—look at those buildings.”

In Morningside Heights, longtime residents can feel similarly powerless in the face of institutional interests. In addition to the towers being developed by JTS and UTS, the Cathedral of St. John the Divine had built two buildings on its property, in 2008 and 2015, with only some units set apart for affordable housing. Similarly, Mount Sinai St. Luke’s has sold former hospital housing for conversion to luxury rentals on Amsterdam Avenue and Morningside Drive.

Columbia and Barnard are not as cash strapped as other institutions, but among their vast holdings are many vacant lots and unused air rights that could also soon be very lucrative. As the developer in one of the St. Luke’s transactions said approvingly of Morningside Heights, “There is still a lot of room for gentrification and rental growth.”

Kathy Blute, who lives in the Spencer, a co-op on 121st Street, describes waking up at 7 a.m. to the noise of construction from the Jewish Theological Seminary development on 122nd Street. The lobby and basement of her building often vibrate. She has been living in the Spencer, one of the oldest co-ops in New York City, since she moved to the neighborhood with her husband, Dave Robinson, in 1990. But they have not been able to see the sunrise from their apartment since 2004, when Teachers College constructed the 18-story New Residence Hall next to the Spencer. “You get the feeling of things closing in on you,” Blute explains.

Robinson agrees, “People do things who have power and money, and you can’t do anything about it.”

April Tyler, co-chair of the Housing, Land Use, and Zoning committee on Community Board 9, tells me that she is glad the Morningside Heights Community Coalition was “shepherding” a complex undertaking such as this. Like many of the other community members I spoke to, she mentions the Upper West Side’s towering Ariel West and Ariel East and, more specifically, the community response to the construction, which currently serves as a model success story for advocates of rezoning in Morningside Heights.

Sunlight, noise, neighborhood “feel”—these concerns, which mirror Blute’s and Robinson’s, were voiced by residents of the Upper West Side when they pushed for contextual rezoning in the neighborhood. The rezoning was successfully passed in 2007, the same year the towers were erected, for the area between 96th Street and 110th Street, and from Riverside Drive to Central Park West. This kind of rezoning crucially imposes hard height caps.

Bob Botfeld, who co-founded Westsiders For Responsible Development, tells me that the rezoning effort was intense. “We had to bring thousands of people out to different meetings,” he says. “There’s no magic bullet.” But through the efforts of him and others, that area of the Upper West Side now has hard caps on building heights, ranging from 75 to 145 feet.

But instituting height limits does not mean stopping tall developments altogether. The Upper West Side rezoning also included something called inclusionary housing, which residents of Morningside Heights are also looking to pursue. With such provisions, developers are allowed to build taller than the FAR allows in some areas if they provide a certain percentage of affordable housing.

A contextual rezoning does not necessarily mean keeping out tall buildings altogether; it means ensuring that they are limited and include affordable housing when they are built. As Barry Weinberg, executive board member of the MHCC and member of CB9’s Land Use, Housing, and Zoning committee, tells me, there is a certain inevitability to the influx of development. Broadway could look very different once its low commercial buildings are replaced with towering residences. The question is not whether it will happen, he says, but rather, “Will there be affordable housing when it happens?” Weinberg emphasizes that activists in Morningside Heights are unique in their attitude, saying, “Yes, we will accept more density, if it means we’re guaranteed affordable housing.”

The move is partly strategic. Inclusionary housing is part of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s ambitious project to create or preserve 200,000 units of affordable housing over 10 years. In 2016, inclusionary housing was made mandatory in the Mandatory Inclusionary Housing policy. Previously, developers had merely been able to opt in if they wanted (this is the framework on the Upper West Side). Mandatory Inclusionary Housing only comes into effect, however, when a neighborhood is rezoned to increase density, a process known as “upzoning.” Activists like Weinberg therefore make a sort of bargain: allowing for limited higher density, as developers want, but in the process ensuring the creation of affordable housing when development occurs.

As it stands, only two new developments in Morningside Heights have inclusionary housing. They are the buildings constructed on land by St. John the Divine, Avalon Morningside Park and Enclave at the Cathedral. There, the developer set aside 59 and 87 units, respectively, for residents with incomes below a certain threshold, in returning for a property tax break. Stern estimates in an op-ed in City Limits that “of the approximately 1,200 new apartments due to be made available in Morningside Heights in the next few years, only about seven percent will fall into the so-called ‘affordable’ range.” (Even this estimate is based on the problematic “area median income,” which is set for the entire city and so does not accurately describe the actual income of a particular neighborhood)

Affordable housing is direly needed in Morningside Heights, which currently has moderate but eroding diversity of racial and economic distributions. Where the share of Latinx residents has decreased slightly—by 8.5 percent—over the past 15 years and the number of Black residents has dropped more significantly, by 29.8 percent.

Most Black and Latinx people tallied in the census live in Grant Houses, the public housing project between 123rd Street and 125th Street. But renters in non-public housing, both within what is considered Morningside Heights and beyond, will feel the effects of gentrification. This is especially true for people living in rent-stabilized apartments, which make up a large number of units in Morningside Heights. This valuable housing stock is being threatened by development. According to New York’s Independent Budget Office, Morningside Heights had the highest turnover rate of rent-stabilized apartments in the entire city between 2010 and 2015.

This is concerning because, as Curbed explains, landlords can bump up the rent by more than 20 percent each time, progressively raising prices.

Indeed, as of 2014, almost half of residents qualified as rent-burdened, spending more than 30 percent of their income on rent, and one fourth were living under the poverty line. Last year, a report from NYU’s Furman Center for Real Estate and Urban Policy showed that the area “Morningside Heights/Hamilton Heights” was among the fastest gentrifying in the city from 1990 to 2010-2014, with rapid increases in rent.

Mandatory Inclusionary Housing therefore seems like a prime method for ensuring the affordability of Morningside Heights. Still, I was surprised to hear that activists were urging an increase in density, even if constrained, in order to reap its benefits. That’s because such rezonings are often highly contentious, being associated, for some, with gentrification and displacement in low- and moderate-income communities of color. In debates over upzoning, inclusionary housing is sometimes used to assure a community that affordability will not decrease. This is happening in East Harlem, where the city, which is pushing the upzoning, has sought to allay residents’ concerns by touting the Mandatory Inclusionary Housing program.

Even closer to us, most of 125th Street was upzoned in 2007. Arguing that this historic thoroughfare of Black history of Harlem could be “invigorated with new investment,” the Department of City Planning pushed a rezoning that included a provision for affordable housing.

The rezoning passed despite strong community opposition. To learn more, I meet Harlem neighborhood historian and activist Michael Henry Adams at Red Rooster, a stylish restaurant on Lenox Avenue. We sit outside, and he greets passersby as we talk about the rezoning. When I bring up inclusionary housing, he immediately bursts out, “How does that make any sense to you?” He is voicing a concern many have: When developers bring many new residents into a neighborhood, and 80 percent of them can pay exorbitant market-rate costs, while 20 percent have some form of rent control, the 80 percent will by far overpower the 20 percent.

“How does that not mean that the poor black people will not, in very short order, be overwhelmed by the rich white people?” he asks me. The practice of segregating low-income units within a building or requiring lower-income residents to use a different entrance (so-called “poor doors”) may have been banned for developers receiving a tax abatement in 2015, but fears of discrimination remain. More importantly, secondary displacement effects, such as neighboring landlords who evict their tenants and rising store prices, can drive out more people than the inclusionary housing has included.

Whether or not this is a danger in Morningside Heights, the rezoning enjoys support from many residents and elected officials. Leveraging their political capital and experience in community organizing, residents like Blute, a retired social worker, and Robinson, a retired legal services lawyer, are mounting political pressure through the MHCC (Robinson sits on its Executive Board).

“One of the reasons we’ve formed this coalition is to not be powerless,” he says. “What we’ve done a lot of our lives is make people less powerless.”

Other residents are harnessing their political capital to change things. O’Donnell, who represents Morningside Heights, Manhattan Valley, and parts of the Upper West Side in the New York State Assembly, has written several public letters to Mayor Bill de Blasio, urging a rezoning.

O’Donnell has been pushing for a rezoning of Morningside Heights since around 1999, long before he became an elected assemblymember, and says he has only been laughed at.

“I was told, ‘Rich real estate money will never come to Harlem,’” he tells me. “I guess I was right and they were wrong.”

The MHCC is asking the Department of City Planning, a large government agency, to perform the preliminary study necessary to launch the rezoning process.

This will trigger the seven-month long Uniform Land Use Review Procedure, which involves many public hearings and votes from the community board (in this case, Community Board 9), the borough president (Gale Brewer), the City Planning Commission (a 13-person committee that votes on all zoning changes in the city), and the City Council. Councilmember Mark Levine is, in this rezoning project, the most crucial figure on the City Council, as he’s the district representative for Morningside Heights, Manhattanville, and Hamilton Heights.

So far, there seems to be substantial support from elected officials for rezoning in Morningside Heights. A rally against the Vandewater this past April was attended not only by O’Donnell, but also Gale Brewer and Letitia James. James is a public advocate, which means that she’s a watchdog and advocate in the second-highest-ranking elected position in the city. In support of the rally, Levine created an online petition urging Savanna, the developer of the Vandewater, to “create a building which is consistent with the scale, history, and values of the Morningside Heights community.”

The MHCC, with the support of its political supporters, has been arguing its case to the Department of City Planning since 2016. With several rezonings pending around the city, however, Stern tells me that City Planning has still not committed the resources to conduct the study of Morningside Heights.

III: Columbia’s Role In Reshaping Morningside Heights & Manhattanville

Those undergraduates with guaranteed housing may be shielded from the vicissitudes of the housing market, but we impact the demographics in our neighborhood, and they impact us. In the best cases, diversity in the neighborhood and in Columbia brings the communities closer.

In the worst cases, the presence of Columbia students and faculty can be the source of displacement. The Grant Houses, along with the middle-class housing cooperative Morningside Gardens to their south, were built in the 1950s at the behest of neighborhood institutions, including Columbia, as a “horizontal restriction” to the “encroachment of Harlem,” as Andrew Dolkart writes in Morningside Heights: A History of Its Architecture and Development. Although the projects were supposed to be racially integrated, the intent was clear: With Black and Latinx people moving south from Manhattanville (and north from below 110th Street), the institutions wanted to keep the population at the fringes, lest its presence “scare away their generally white and middle-class constituency.”

This was evidently not enough to stanch white flight and deteriorating housing conditions in Morningside Heights, for the Black and Latinx populations continued to increase. In the 1960s, Columbia set about buying over a hundred apartment buildings and driving their residents out, displacing thousands of Black and Puerto Rican residents and giving Columbia the real estate dominance in Morningside Heights it has today.

Many also cast an uneasy eye toward Manhattanville, where Columbia has been planning and building its new campus since the early 2000s. The political process around the development showed just how much power Columbia could exert over a rezoning. In fact, part of the reason Morningside Heights has not been rezoned in over 50 years is that Columbia derailed just such an effort for its expansion in Manhattanville.

This was because Columbia needed to rezone the 35-acre area from manufacturing to mixed used in order to be able to build its campus. At the same time, however, a more expansive rezoning for all of Morningside Heights, Manhattanville, and Hamilton Heights, called a 197-a plan, had been in the workings in Community Board 9 for over 20 years. The community’s plan would have made Columbia’s campus, including its enormous underground facilities, much more difficult, and the two plans ended up competing. Despite strong community opposition, Columbia’s plan was approved in 2007, in part with the help of lobbying money to the tune of $1.5 million (between 2004 and May 2007).

One of the most important compromises made between Columbia and activists was a West Harlem Community Benefits Agreement for $150 million, signed in 2009. The MHCC, inspired by the agreement, is hoping to strike similar kinds of deals with developers in Morningside Heights.

The WHCBA is not without controversy, however. Ronald Shiffman, who co-founded the Pratt Center for Community Development, was one of the senior planners in charge of the community plan until he retired in 2004, at which point he continued to serve as a consultant to the process. Impressively bearded, he leans in over the din of Brownie’s Café in Avery Hall and tells me that after Columbia announced its expansion into Manhattanville, the planners began grappling with the question of how Columbia could be organically integrated into the West Harlem community. Part of that was the community benefits agreement.

The West Harlem Development Corporation, tasked with distributing part of the benefits, however, has been accused of being beholden to the interests of elected officials instead of the community. Shiffman resigned from a consultant position to the WHDC for this reason. He points out that the $150 million of the CBA is miniscule in comparison to the value Columbia is projected to pour into the project, a mere two percent of the $6.3 billion expansion costs. Columbia got the land above and below ground in Manhattanville, he notes with a sense of bitterness, “for nothing.”

Peter Marcuse, professor emeritus of urban planning at GSAPP, notes a deeper issue to community benefits agreements. I call the longtime progressive planner, who participated in the Freedom Summer in Mississippi in 1962 before becoming a Columbia professor in 1975, at his home in Waterbury, Connecticut. Having chaired Community Board 9’s Housing Committee in the 1980’s, Marcuse was appointed to co-chair the University Senate Campus Planning Task Force from 2003 to 2010, advising the University on the physical and academic planning of the Manhattanville campus. He says that a community benefits agreement would do little to integrate the University into the fabric of Morningside Heights. “A community benefits agreement is essentially an agreement between strangers,” he tells me, noting its transactional nature. In Morningside Heights, there is potential for wide-reaching cooperation in the planning of the community. “Columbia is in a position to say, ‘We’re part of this community. And what helps you, helps us.’”

Despite such limitations, the MHCC is proposing a community benefits agreement explicitly modeled on the West Harlem CBA for Morningside Heights. The MHCC hopes to benefit from new development in Morningside Heights by Columbia or other developers. Weinberg says that this is in part to offset the strains on infrastructure (like schools and the subway system) caused by an influx of new residents coming into the neighborhood. Further, with an increasingly elderly population, Morningside Heights needs more senior centers as well as wheelchair accessibility for subway stations.

To this end, the MHCC has created a fund with the New York Community Trust, a community foundation that takes donations and coordinates their investment. Stern says that the MHCC has been urging developers to donate as a way of contributing to the community’s needs. So far none has agreed, although UTS has made a pledge of $5 million, independent of the fund.

Walter South, who was co-chair of the 197-a planning committee on Community Board 9, is wary. He tells me this bluntly as I carve up a flan in Floridita, the restaurant whose owner famously resisted relocation. Asking the City Planning Committee to do a study, as the MHCC is doing, means it will privilege the needs of Columbia and the other institutions, he says. The community will not be in control. “Either you’re at the table or you’re on the menu,” he tells me. “It’s not going to be for the best of the community.”

South would know: The 197-a plan he helped oversee, which failed to pass in 2007, was picked up by Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer. City Planning shepherded the plan, now limited to an area of West Harlem and excluding Columbia’s expansion site, into law in 2012. Although the rezoning included many goals that had been envisioned in the 197-a, some on Community Board 9 criticized for not being transparent enough. As South vented to Spectator at the time, “Why does a small group of politically connected people in this community have more rights than the community board, which has voted twice against this proposal?”

IV: The 800-Pound Gorilla in the Room

For the first time in over half a century, rezoning comes to Morningside Heights. In an area where tens of thousands of people study, teach, or do research at Barnard or Columbia, one cannot get around confronting the University’s massive local presence.

I am relieved to find that among those tens of thousands of souls, at least one has also been thinking about this. Rachel Knowles, senior at Barnard College, got involved with the MHCC through the Roosevelt Institute, a student-run think tank on campus of which she is a member. She attended several meetings and events, including “Morningside Speaks!,” a workshop in January where the MHCC brought together about 150 residents to talk about the neighborhood’s future. Knowles was among only a handful of Columbia students who attended. “We have very little interaction with actual members of the community,” she reflects. “Our time here is so transient.”

I ask whether Knowles, who is from a “distant suburb” in Alabama, is planning to continue living in Morningside Heights after she graduates. “Nope,” she says. “Outta here in May.”

Still, Knowles is passionate about housing policy and, at Stern’s request, ended up writing a policy piece about gentrification and affordable housing in Morningside Heights this past summer. In it, she urges that, “with its large endowment, extensive property ownership, and world class urban studies faculty, Columbia University is uniquely positioned to take the lead on these issues.”

Columbia’s plans in Morningside Heights are difficult to discern. The Morningside Heights residents I talk to describe Columbia, among other things, as the “800-pound gorilla,” the “pink elephant,” and, of course, the “lion in the room.”

The heft of the gorilla stems from its property holdings: Apart from the campus itself, Columbia owns the majority of property in Morningside Heights, whether it is student and faculty housing, stores, facilities, or being used for other purposes. Columbia therefore has real power in shaping Morningside Heights and it will, in turn, be the property owner most impacted by a rezoning.

Weinberg, who graduated from Columbia in 2012, tells me that “Columbia attempts to curate Morningside Heights to be attractive to students and faculty.” One area that he and others feel relatively positively about is shop life. Columbia and Barnard own many of the properties with storefronts along Broadway, and therefore have the power to decide which stores get to move in. From Book Culture, New Paul’s Shoe Repair, Janoff’s Stationery, and University Housewares, to Morton Williams to Tea Magic, Shake Shack, Junzi Kitchen, and Dig Inn, the University knows the kinds of small businesses and fast-casual eateries where students like to shop and eat.

At the same time, in the 1960s as now, the extent of Columbia’s power can have mixed consequences on the community. “Their curation does not necessarily hold a vision for people with lower or even moderate incomes to be able to afford to live there.”

One of the documents that the MHCC developed last year to argue for the necessity of a rezoning is a public report of “soft sites,” or properties that are vulnerable to redevelopment. While some of the 23 sites have changed hands since then, the long list of vacant lots, one-story shops like banks and convenience stores, and parking garages shows just how many sites vulnerable to redevelopment can be tucked away in a neighborhood. All of these sites, because of their low density—that is, their low occupancy—are considered attractive to developers, whether for transferring air rights or for tearing down the existing structure and building something new.

Samad’s Gourmet, The Heights, and the Citibank are listed in the document. Although the Citibank is being rebuilt, the report mentions the specter of future developments.

When it comes to land uses, however, the trail turns murkier. It is surprising that the largest private landowner in the neighborhood (and the city) has hardly been involved in the conversation around rezoning. Stern says he was glad to see representatives of the University at January’s workshop—but there hasn’t really been much more. He is hard-pressed to tell me about what the future impact of Columbia will be. “Columbia has been, I believe, very concerned that their plans, whatever they are, not be made available to the wider public,” he says.

This uncertainty is increased, with Columbia as with any other developer, by the fact that the zoning in Morningside Heights permits many kinds of development as-of-right, meaning that the developer does not need to apply for a zoning variance. This prevents the kind of transparency that the review process would have ensured.

Stern says that Columbia’s contiguous properties means the University could use air rights to build a very tall dormitory, or sell those air rights to a developer. “We’re hoping they don’t,” Stern says, “but right now they could if they wanted to.”

Two of the sites mentioned in the soft site report are places where Columbia owns a parking lot and a building behind it. One is between Amsterdam Avenue and Morningside Drive, with the parking lot along West 115th Street and a building leased to St. Luke’s at 411 W. 114th Street; another is between Broadway and Riverside Drive, with the parking lot along West 113th Street and seven row houses at 604-616 W. 114th Street.

In December 2016, a representative of the University argued in testimony before the Landmarks Preservation Commission for the row houses to be excluded from a newly created historic district, arguing that the row houses and parking lot were “a site appropriate for housing that would be created in compatibility with the neighborhood.” The plea was unsuccessful, as the row houses are now landmarked, meaning they cannot be demolished. The parking lot, however, remains.

Columbia University Facilities and Operations wrote in an emailed statement that there were no active plans to develop either of the two sites, noting, however, that the University is continually assessing its needs. This response certainly leaves the door ajar for future development.

Tyler, of Community Board 9, says that Columbia’s current focus on Manhattanville has slowed its development in Morningside Heights. The question is for how long. “I do not for one minute think that they are not making plans for their properties in Morningside Heights,” Tyler says.

With the stakes so high, silence can feel like a gaping black hole absorbing the confidence and agency of a community. Like the silent photographers who stood outside of Samad’s Gourmet or the impenetrable blue windows of the Vandewater office, Columbia’s lack of an official policy for Morningside Heights creates uncertainty that can turn into dread.

This dread may be entirely misplaced. But in the University’s silence, people hear the echoes of storms of the past. The University affirmed in its statement that it would seek input from Community Board 9 and other community groups when planning new developments, as it did in Manhattanville. It is worth noting that Community Board 9 voted unanimously for its own 197-a plan and against the use of eminent domain, which Columbia argued was necessary for the expansion, seemingly to little effect on the University’s plans.

With these hard lessons in mind, South is planning to draw up a new 197-a for the entire area from 110th to 155th Street, mentioning provisions that included everything from affordable housing to transportation, WiFi, and updates to the sewage system. I ask whether all of that is even in the purview of a rezoning. “Maybe not,” he shoots back. “The point is, we gotta start the conversation.”  

The MHCC is trying to do the same thing with its own plan. A conversation, however, takes two, and Stern tells me that Columbia needs to engage. “We need to make sure that there is a line of communication,” he says. “Some liaison, designated from Columbia, to work with the community more closely.”

An important part of conversation is listening. Barnard student Knowles tells me that at the January workshop of the MHCC residents were broken up into different tables to discuss in a small setting. She describes how sad she felt when listening to someone who had lived in the neighborhood for over 60 years, saying that he saw “things that were important to him kind of evaporating.” She heard from a father with a two-year-old child, who said he was worried about light and construction noise from development near his apartment.

“I’d never even thought about many of these problems,” Knowles says. Indeed, such problems can be background murmur, like the faint rumblings of the earth underneath our feet, to a university that does not seem to listen. Conversely, residents become wary of the university if all it leaves behind are the footprints of an 800-pound gorilla after it is already too late. If a vision of coexistence is to emerge out of the rezoning of Morningside Heights, it will have to be strung together, as are all agreements between people, by words.

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