By Carla Zanoni
INWOOD — Neighborhood residents have softened their stance against Columbia's plans to build a new athletic building on the Inwood waterfront, after realizing the plan will bring more than 30,000 square feet of renovated public waterfront space and the removal of a longstanding barbed-wire fence in the area.
Inwood residents had initially decried the university’s request to obtain city-owned space to satisfy rules forcing shoreline developers to set aside part of their land for public use.
Critics feared the move would result in Columbia taking over a segment of Inwood Hill Park, or using eminent domain laws to seize additional property.
But several critics said that their fears were partly allayed when they got a glimpse of a rendering of the school's proposed public waterfront space last week.
"When you hear the words Columbia University and development together in a sentence, people are bound to get nervous," said Inwood resident Mary Clarke, 53, who lives on Dyckman Street. "But even if the city owns that land, people who live in Inwood don’t get to use it now. I say do something to make it public."
The rendering showed the location of Columbia's proposed waterfront park is slated for a portion of land on West 218th Street that butts up against Inwood Hill Park and sits on the northwest corner of Baker Field athletic complex.
Residents said the location of the construction, and the estimated 34,000 square feet of accessible public waterfront space — plus nearly 17,000 square feet of restored marsh and shoreline —were enough to balance the scales with Columbia's request for more space to build their complex.
The community’s change of heart over the sports center is also due in part to the school’s removal of a barbed-wire fence that bordered the southern end of Baker Field, on West 218th Street between Broadway and Park Terrace West, residents say. The 10-foot-tall fence had strings of ominous-looking barbed wire on top, and irked residents who lived along its border.
Complaints about the fence also popped up frequently at community meetings held between Inwood residents and university to discuss the proposed athletic center.
Two weeks ago, the school replaced the old fence with a new fence that stands about 6 feet tall without barbed wire, and has manicured hedges in front.
"This is so much better, I walk my dog over here all the time and it always felt so institutional before," 45-year-old Inwood resident Maurice Cole said, adding that the fence removal made him feel more comfortable about the school’s plans.
The Department of City Planning (DCP) is currently reviewing the school’s application requesting waivers on certain regulations related to the project, including the amount of public waterfront space the school needs to develop.
According to Community Board 12 land use chair Wayne Benjamin, the school would normally have to set aside 180,000 square feet of public waterfront space in order to develop a project of this size, but the university has argued that the topography of the land, existing buildings and fields would make it difficult to meet that requirement.
After its review of the variances the school is requesting, the Planning Department passed the application along to Community Board 12 for its review and vote this month. The board has scheduled a public review meeting during its Oct. 6 Land Use Committee meeting and will then vote on the matter at the CB12 general meeting on Oct. 26.
After that, DCP will have a final vote on the application later this year.