By Carla Zanoni
INWOOD — Columbia University got almost unanimous approval from the city's planning department Wednesday to build on its Baker Field sports complex.
Department of City Planning commissioners decided in an 11-1 vote to make a zoning modification that would normally mandate the school set aside 15 percent of its land for public waterfront access in exchange for the right to build on its property.
Instead, if the school is given the final green light to build by the City Council, it will dedicate 1.5 percent of its property to waterfront access. The council will hold hearings on the issue over the next 20 days.
“We are committed to continuing to work with Community Board 12 and the Inwood community to provide long-term enjoyment of the Boathouse Marsh Park and Columbia’s athletic facilities by both local residents and the University community," said Columbia spokeswoman Victoria Benitez in a statement.
Residents said City Planning's decision showed the school had been given preferential treatment.
"It is shameful that Columbia University gets what they want without compliance to the law," Inwood resident and community activist Osi Kaminer said. "Technically any government official that allows it to happened is giving Columbia University a blank check."
City Councilman Robert Jackson, whose district includes Columbia, has said he would support the school's plans while pushing to have community concerns addressed.
City Councilman Ydanis Rodriguez, whose district is near Baker Field, but does not encompass the sports complex, has not publically supported the project.
In October, Community Board 12 effectively deadlocked on a resolution to approve Columbia's plan.
Although a city law requires property owners on the Manhattan shoreline to set aside a predetermined percentage of the land for public use when building a new structure along the water, Columbia officials have argued it does not have the amount of workable waterfront land it needs at Broadway and 218th Street, the site of the new complex, to meet the city's square footage requirement.
Instead, the university has requested the city allow it to develop the city's waterfront land that abuts Columbia's land in order to meet that requirement.
Columbia's plan for adding some of the waterfront property to Inwood Hill Park includes wider paths, lowered hedges for increased water views and the addition of new park benches.
The landscape architecture firm James Corner Field Operations, the same firm that designed the High Line downtown, is slated to design the proposed public park expansion.