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Residents Question Why Columbia has not Started Waterfront Project

INWOOD — One year after Columbia University received permission from the city to build a new athletic complex at its Baker Field complex, the building appears to be moving on schedule with glass windows now being installed around its perimeter. 

Two blocks to the west of the 47,700-square-foot field house on West 218th Street and Broadway, the land that Columbia agreed to revamp into a public waterfront space near Inwood Hill Park remains untouched. 

Residents say they are worried about the lack of progress and want to know when the school will make good on it promise to make its riverside space available to the community. 

“The school wasted no time getting that building up, so what’s the delay in giving us our park?” said William Pena, who lives near the school’s athletic complex. 

Columbia officials said that the school has not changed its plan to build the waterfront space and said the building is on “track for fall 2012 occupancy.” 

“The Boathouse Marsh is still in the pre-construction/bidding phase of the project,” Columbia spokeswoman Victoria Benitez wrote in an email.  

School officials did not respond to requests for a specific timeline planned for the project. 

The Parks Department, with whom Columbia is planning the construction, did not immediately respond to request for comment. 

Columbia and community officials have said the school will not be able to receive a certificate of occupancy for its new building until it opens the waterfront space, but community members question whether the agreement is enforceable. 

In order to build a larger facility on its complex, Columbia had to request a modification to the city's waterfront zoning rules, which normally require 15 percent of the project's land be turned over for public use.

The City Council backed the city's Planning Commission approval of the modification, which allows Columbia to set aside just 1.5 percent of its property for public use.

The decrease in public space frustrated many residents, who clamored for an enforceable benefits agreement from the university to make up for the difference.

Roger Meyer, a spokesman for ConservancyNorth, a community group that is vying to develop and administer the community benefits agreement with Columbia University, said his group is also concerned about the timeline for the project and said they are unclear as to the delays in constructing the public space. 

"We would like clarity on the timeline of the Boathouse Marsh as this is a very important project for the community," he said. 

According to some, the hold up on the park appears to be a lack of agreement over the community benefits agreement Columbia University president Lee Bollinger signed and presented to elected officials last year. 

As of Tuesday, the agreement has not yet been signed. 

City Councilman Robert Jackson said his office has continued to work with Columbia and the community to "help ensure that the community partnership agreement reached with Columbia University is implemented with the integrity and transparency that the community surrounding the Baker Field project deserves."

"Currently, the University and the Parks Department are working on reaching consensus on a Dual Use Agreement that will govern the use of the Boathouse Marsh," he said in an email statement. "A timeline on the construction of this public space is expected to follow shortly thereafter."

Inwood resident David Alan said he was suspicious of the pace of construction of the athletic building and added it has only made him more resentful of the deal the school struck with the city.  

“Basically I feel Columbia is getting a lot and giving little back,” he wrote in a Facebook message. 

But not everyone in the neighborhood agrees. 

Karyn Boister, who lives on Seaman Avenue, said she believes that Columbia will make good on its promise even though it appears the school would have a difficult time keeping its fall 2012 timetable. 

“The construction’s been an inconvenience,” Inwood resident Maria Torres said, “but in the end I think we will have a beautiful park the whole community can enjoy.”