Columbia University has proposed replacing a bare strip of Inwood’s shoreline with a waterfront park, complete with marshes and migrating birds. But some neighborhood residents are suspicious.
Columbia unveiled preliminary plans for a park at West 218th Street at the October meeting of Community Board 12’s parks and recreation committee. The park comes hand in hand with a new athletic center in the school’s 26-acre Baker Athletic Complex.
Dan Held, from the Columbia facilities department, and project manager Ira Pinkus presented what would essentially be a .91-acre extension to Inwood Hill Park giving additional waterfront access. The site, just north of the park’s Indian Road entrance, is empty space bordered by fenced-off shoreline.
Mock-ups depicted a path leading down to a 190-foot, arc-shaped boardwalk wrapping around a freshwater marsh and a salt marsh, one of the last remaining in Manhattan. “The construction of a freshwater marsh in combination with the river’s salt water is an attractive environment for wildlife,” Columbia spokeswoman Victoria Benitez said in an email. Columbia is working to tie the park into local education programs, she added.
Pinkus said he expected the park to open in two years — including approximately six months of construction — although the spring planting of certain marsh plants could throw the timeline off slightly. The plans are too preliminary for even a ballpark budget, he said.
Some land ownership issues must also be resolved before construction can start, though Columbia is pushing for speedy answers, Pinkus said. The city may own a sliver of shoreline property.
Columbia’s presentation attracted a full house, and many residents were angry about more development in their neighborhood, where Columbia already has a number of facilities, including a football stadium. Several audience members suggested that the university was trying to “buy them off” with a small park then would construct a monstrous building.
Pinkus said he had no knowledge of what building was planned for the site but said regulations required any building larger than 20,000 feet to provide public waterfront access.
“Columbia proposes to build a 47,000 square foot, five-story sports complex,” Martin Collins, community liaison for New York State Assemblyman Adriano Espaillat, told The Streets Where We Live, an Inwood-focused blog. Collins said his comments were made as a private citizen and not as a representative for Espaillat; he declined to confirm the details.
“The university is in the very earliest stages of thinking about a new athletic center at the corner of Broadway and 218th Street,” Benitez said. “It is so early that it would be impossible to talk about because there is no other information.” She said that she is not familiar with the figures cited by Collins.
Committee chair Elizabeth Ritter kept the conversation largely confined to the park referring discussion of the building to the land use committee. She also suggested a future joint meeting of the two committees that has since been scheduled for Nov. 4 at 7 p.m. at the community board office.
Columbia is “trying to fulfill their legal obligation in a way that makes sense for them as an institution,” Ritter said after the meeting. “There was a fair amount of anti-university sentiment,” she said but added that overall, “it seemed like pretty good two-way dialogue.” Columbia representatives appeared willing to consider the community’s requests, Ritter said, and she appreciated that they came to the community board early enough in the process to incorporate its feedback.
Among the crowd’s suggestions: boat access and an additional pair of park enforcement patrol officers subsidized by the university. Pinkus and Held agreed to look into these but deemed several others unviable, including an elevated bridge over the marsh and unlimited hours of operations.
A local resident, 52-year-old legal administrator David Plump, said that he tentatively supported the plan but that he took issue with Columbia’s actions elsewhere in the city, like its use of eminent domain in Manhattanville. “The park might be a good idea if they could connect it to Inwood Hill Park as long as it’s not negative environmental impact,” Plump said. But he added, “I think we all have to reserve judgment,” because plans for the building on the site are still unknown.
“The community wants to have involvement,” Plump said, because residents do not want Columbia to “bulldoze the community literally and figuratively.”