By Carla Zanoni
UPPER MANHATTAN — An online petition is demanding more concessions from Columbia University on a proposed plan to build on its Baker Field athletic complex just days before the City Council is set to vote on the project.
After a heated debate between elected officials, community members and university representatives, area residents took to the Internet late Wednesday in a last ditch grassroots effort to make their demands of the university known.
"We ask that you join us in supporting this proposal, and in asking that Columbia act as a good neighbor and a good citizen of the community," the petition reads, which asks the university to expand its proposed community benefits agreement.
Creators of the petition, a consortium of Inwood and Washington Heights residents and community activists, contend that the school's benefits agreement is insufficient. The agreement was proposed as a concession for school's plan to dedicate 1.5 percent of its waterfront property for public use, instead of the 15 percent that was previously required by the Department of City Planning.
"For too long our communities have been marginalized and dismissed in just about every sector, including education and the environment," said Susan Ryan, one of the petition's organizers and an Inwood resident.
"This sends a clear message to Columbia that the communities of Inwood and Washington Heights are a force to be reckoned with."
Columbia plans to build a new $100 million, 47,700-square-foot field house at 218th Street and Broadway that includes a $3 million investment in the sports fields, which officials said would be more readily accessible for community use.
It's also planning a waterfront park that would be "gifted" to the city for public use.
Petition organizers request additional benefits, including more community education and scholarship programs, expanded athletic field access and improvements to the school’s waterfront access plan.
Columbia University did not immediately respond to a request for comment, but group organizers met with university officials and presented the petition on Thursday morning.
Organizers will also bring the petition to next week’s City Council Land Use committee hearing scheduled for April 4, and the full City Council meeting on April 6.
Signatures poured in overnight, with more than 320 signatures posted by noon Thursday. Group organizers posted a Spanish version online on Thursday and will continue their outreach to Latino organizations in Upper Manhattan.
"The response has been simply overwhelming," Ryan said, crediting Upper Manhattan’s broad online and social network communities for spreading the word.
"It's powerful to see our community come together like this."
Those interested in contacting the group organizers can email firstname.lastname@example.org.