By Jeff Mays
HARLEM — Upper Manhattan leaders who said they were caught off guard by Columbia University's bid to expand into 17 acres of West Harlem have created a rezoning plan to ensure that future development in the area is in the best interests of the community.
The plan, which would be the first rezoning of the neighborhood since 1961, would seek to preserve West Harlem's historic character, allow for more residential and affordable housing and manage the growth of commercial development. The meeting comes a few months after Columbia's plans to use eminent domain to take over 17 acres of what they called "blighted" property in West Harlem was cleared by a state appeals court.
"One of the reasons we wanted to help rezone the neighborhood is that we wanted to be prepared when the next Columbia plan comes along — 17 acres in Manhattan is like a small country," said Larry English, chair of Community Board 9.
Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer is hosting a public meeting Thursday night in which city officials will outline the preliminary rezoning plan and ask the public for feedback.
"This rezoning is one of the most important rezonings to take place in Upper Manhattan in years," Stringer said. "A lot of change is going to come to West Harlem in the next 10 years because of Columbia University's expansion project, and we want to make sure that this neighborhood is kept intact."
English said he believes residents will be pleased that the plan protects approximately 90 percent of the existing architecture in West Harlem and that new residential rules will protect the area against further gentrification, even with the Columbia expansion.
He also said that by allowing more commercial development in key areas, the rezoning could create more jobs for neighborhood residents.
Among the proposed changes is an increase to height restrictions of buildings on the West 145th Street corridor, which would allow developers to participate in the Inclusionary Housing Program, whereby builders are given bonus floor space for increasing the amount of affordable housing.
English said that would allow building heights in the area to rise anywhere from 12 to 17 stories.
"That is a lot taller than what is there now," he said.
Another change would allow more residential construction in the manufacturing district bounded by West 126th Street, West 130th Street, Amsterdam Avenue and Convent Avenue.
This means that 34,000 square feet of space at the site of the former Taystee Bakery complex between West 125th and West 126th streets would be opened up for residential construction.
The city is currently seeking new proposals for the space after it won a lawsuit to evict gourmet grocery Citarella from the 125th Street storefront on charges it didn't fulfill its promises to develop the rest of the property.
Susan Russell, director of operations for Councilman Robert Jackson, said the plan strikes a good balance.
"Zoning is all about what's possible," Russell said. "This plan really does approach a good place in terms of encouraging what we want to encourage."
The formal land-use review process is expected to begin next year.
The public meeting will be held at 6 p.m. Thursday at Manhattanville Community Center at 530 West 133rd St.