Push to Halt Columbia Demo Plan

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The push to create a Morningside Heights historic district suffered a setback late last year, when the Department of Buildings granted Columbia University permits to demolish three century-old brownstones. By summer 2010, these buildings—Nos. 408, 410 and 412 W. 115th St., between Morningside Drive and Amsterdam Avenue—are expected to be gone.

But a local group is still hoping it can get the city to intervene, or perhaps convince the university to change its plans.

The group, the Committee to Preserve the Morningside Brownstones, has been gathering information on the buildings’ history and significance to the neighborhood since the permits were awarded Nov. 30, and recently started to go public with its efforts.

“The only absolute protection is to designate them on the city level,” said Harry Schwartz, a member of the group who lives on Morningside Drive and West 115th Street.

The university has no immediate plans for the lot.

“It will be retained for future development,” said spokesperson Daniel Held.

Supporters of keeping the brownstones are now unsure of what Columbia will construct in the buildings’ footprint.

But that hasn’t kept neighbors from guessing.

“It could be a vast parking lot behind us with cars coming in all through the day, undergrad housing or something like a science research facility,” said Nancy Kricorian, an author and activist who has met with university officials about the demolition. “There are so many nightmare scenarios.”

Kricorian, whose bedroom window faces the parking lot that is next to these brownstones, says a new building would ruin the residential character of the neighborhood.

Other brownstone supporters, including Assembly Member Daniel O’Donnell, want Columbia to rehabilitate the buildings, now clad in black netting from little maintenance.

“The condition has clearly deteriorated since their ownership,” O’Donnell said. “There are many buildings across the city in much worse disrepair that are salvaged and revived to their original glory.”

In 2002, Columbia bought the brownstones, which were “dilapidated after years of neglect,” according to Held, the university’s spokesperson. “The university invested the funds necessary to prevent further deterioration and to protect the public.”

The city’s Landmark Preservation Commission has yet to schedule a hearing on the proposal to protect the area bounded by West 110th Street and Tiemann Place, from Morningside Park to Riverside Park—much to O’Donnell’s chagrin.

But going forward, O’Donnell wants to raise awareness of the historic nature of the brownstones and their importance to Morningside Heights’ character.

“I intend to bring these buildings to the attention of the mayor,” O’Donnell said, “and name the bulldozers after [landmarks commissioner] Rob Tierney and Michael Bloomberg.”

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