The "Boathouse Marsh," a paradise in contention

A storm is brewing over Columbia’s upgrades to Baker Field. The project has been controversial since the beginning, but tensions escalated this past week. Residents of Inwood, the neighborhood around the 218th St. complex, are frustrated with the way, they argue, Columbia has circumvented zoning laws. Of course people get peeved whenever Columbia expands, but Columbia did, in fact, cleverly get around a city law that mandates a certain amount of waterfront property be set aside for public use. The University’s solution to avoid giving up land is to build an uber fancy “Boathouse Marsh,” designed by the architects of the High Line. The proposed project sets aside 1.5% of the land for public access, instead of the required 15%.

By an 11-1 vote, NYC’s Planning Department allowed Columbia to bend the rules in February, leaving the City Council’s permission as the last obstacle to construction. The Council was supposed to decide on Tuesday, but, at the last minute, delayed the vote. Some community members remained unconvinced that locals had enough input, and agreed to a community meeting instead. On postponing the vote, State Senator Adriano Espaillat told the Manhattan Times:

We feel that we still don’t have the information that we need to have regarding the commitment of the university to the community. While I believe this project can mean great things for our community, we must also make sure that local residents and community leaders have a voice in the project’s development.

Espillat claims that he didn’t know a vote was scheduled for Tuesday until last week (Bwog contacted the City Council over a month ago and still hasn’t heard back). He’s siding with Ydanis Rodriguez, the City Councilman whose district borders that of the proposed expansion. Robert Jackson, responsible for the Inwood district and more supportive of the project (Espillat and Rodriguez are overall in favor of Columbia’s expansion but want more community concessions) thinks that the two are teaming up against him for personal and political reasons. They exchanged harsh words at the meeting, and are sparring through the press:

“I’m f-ing pissed off at them,” Jackson told the Daily News after the hearing. “I’m tired of their bulls-t and if they have something to say, they need to come and say it my face.”

There will be another community meeting this Friday, but the City Council will have to vote within 50 days of the Planning Department’s approval for an April 6th final decision deadline. According to the Columbia website, the University plans to begin construction in the “first half of 2011.” Still, at this point, the time frame is questionable. Dan Held, Director of Communications for Columbia Facilities declined to comment, but Robert Hornsby, university spokesman, offered the following statement:

The Boathouse Marsh project would create new public access and new amenities on the Harlem River waterfront, provide passive recreation areas, restore and extend the area’s native marshland, and extend the educational offerings of Inwood Hill Park by creating an environment for learning about wetlands and plant species that once flourished in the area.  We remain committed to continuing to work with elected officials and the Inwood community to provide long-term enjoyment of the Boathouse Marsh and Columbia’s athletic facilities by both local residents and the University community.

Community…it’s complicated!