Residents say Columbia’s plan for 34-story tower breaks promise to redevelop public school

December 11, 2019

Site of 600 West 125th Street; Map data © 2019 Google

Columbia University this week filed plans to build a 34-story residential building in Harlem, as the school continues its campus expansion into the neighborhood. According to documents filed with the city’s Department of Buildings, the project at 600 West 125th Street, formerly home to a McDonald’s, would measure just under 400 feet tall and contain 142 apartments. But as Gothamist reported on Wednesday, local residents argue the plan breaks a longstanding promise from the university to redevelop a public school at the site.

Columbia is currently constructing its 17-acre campus in Manhattanville, spanning from West 125th Street to West 133rd Street. Since kicking off in 2003, the $6.3 billion multi-phase project has so far yielded three buildings, all designed by Renzo Piano. Two additional buildings are under construction.

The site of the planned tower is not within the Manhattanville campus, but a few blocks away. According to the university, it would house graduate students and faculty and include space for both commercial and community uses.

Columbia agreed in 2005 to build a new public secondary school in the neighborhood, according to Gothamist. The Columbia Secondary School for Math, Science, & Engineering shared a building with an elementary school and a charter middle school beginning in 2007. The university signed a community benefits agreement two years later with community groups that gave the secondary school a piece of land through a 49-year, rent-free lease.

The community believed the school would open at 125th Street and Broadway, purchased by Columbia from McDonald’s for $2.7 million in 2004. Columbia recently presented plans for a 34-story residential tower to Community Board 9, much to the surprise of those at the meeting.

“This was the site that everybody had agreed to,” Barry Weinberg, the chair of the community board, told Gothamist, referring to 600 West 125th Street. “It’s a block and a half over from the (current) school. People did not want it developed into a very tall tower.”

“It seems pretty obvious to me that people who have been here a long time feel this is a bait and switch,” Weinberg said.

Columbia says it offered the land to the city’s Department of Education, but the agency declined the proposal in 2011. “After careful review of the site and in light of capital funding limitations, the Department of Education has decided not to proceed with construction of a new public school at this location, and will instead undertake upgrades to Columbia Secondary School’s current location (425 West 123rd Street) for the school’s long-term occupancy,” a letter from Kathleen Grimm, the former DOE Deputy Chancellor, reads.

But conditions at the school’s current location on West 123rd Street have not improved. “It’s totally inadequate,” Deirdre McIntosh-Brown, a chair for the board’s youth education committee, told the website. “They are a middle school and high school in an elementary school building.”

The proposed Harlem tower also includes no affordable units, another point of contention for the community. Council Member Mark Levine called the project “another wildly out-of-scale tower” in a tweet on Wednesday. “We urgently need to update local zoning to prevent this,” Levine, who represents the area, tweeted. “And we need @Columbia to live up to its obligations on school space, transit, community access, etc.”

The university says construction of the tower will begin in 2020 and completed by the summer of 2022. City documents list CetraRuddy as the architect. Columbia also picked up another Harlem property earlier this year: a three-story industrial building at 3300 Broadway for $33.6 million, according to Commercial Observer.

[Via Gothamist]


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