Something that always annoyed me about discussions of the state of Manhattanville and Columbia’s blight study is the fact that they usually leave out restrictive zoning as the original sin. We’re certainly no fans of eminent domain or Columbia’s plans for the West Harlem neighborhood, and while people are right to point out that Columbia’s neighborhood acquisitions and plans are key drivers of the further decline of the neighborhood, it would be stretching the truth to say that the neighborhood’s blight is entirely Columbia’s fault.
The fact is that even before Columbia descended upon the neighborhood, its zoning classification just wouldn’t allow it to be a nice place. What else would you expect from an area that’s zoned mostly for industrial and manufacturing uses and is inhabited mostly by storage companies and auto repair shops?
And the neighborhood organizations themselves weren’t doing the best job selling the alternatives. While their plan included some upzonings, it also would have hobbled the area with the onerous restrictions that are all too common throughout the city. There was an emphasis on preservation of the status quo, with some light industry retained. Inclusionary zoning and community benefits agreements would have driven up the cost of development further. They also took the stance that parking in the area was “insufficient” and “inadequate,” and called for “affordable municipal parking.” Clearly not being familiar with the work of Donald Shoup, they argued that “limited parking cause[s] drivers to circle blocks looking for on-street parking.”
Again, while we’re no fans of eminent domain or Columbia’s heavy-handed tactics, it’s important to remember how difficult it is to do things “the right way,” and how much time and money is necessary to get plots of land rezoned. NYU, which doesn’t have the blight excuse for its Lower Manhattan acquisitions, is being pummeled for trying to tear down a few rather ugly (in my opinion) buildings designed by I. M. Pei that it already owns, and for its other expansion plans. When the process for redevelopment is as difficult as it is in New York City, the case for blight-induced eminent domain becomes stronger, and only large, connected insiders will be able to afford to build anything at all.