Columbia Eyes New Pedestrian Plaza on Washington Heights Medical Campus

A proposal by Columbia University Medical Center and NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital to convert a street on their campus into a pedestrian plaza has yet to win approval from the local community board.

The public plaza would close off Haven Avenue to non-emergency traffic between 168th and 169th streets and would feature plantings, grassy areas and tables. At a meeting Monday of the Community Board 12 traffic and transportation committee, residents and board members said they were particularly worried about the potential loss of 17 parking spaces.

After two hours of discussion inside a packed meeting room just steps from the campus, the committee asked officials from Columbia and the New York City Department of Transportation to return in November with a plan to replace the lost parking by freeing up new spots to the public.

A section of Haven Avenue in Washington Heights was closed to traffic for a one-day plaza festival on Sept. 27, 2016. Columbia University Medical Center, NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital and the New York City Department of Transportation are looking to create a pedestrian plaza at the same location. (Courtesy of Columbia University Medical Center)

“Until you can do that, it would be difficult to be fully supportive of this proposal,” said board member Elizabeth Lorris Ritter. The plan needs approval from the community board to move forward.

The plaza would be open to the community, and officials said local groups could hold programming there on weeknights and weekends. But some residents said they don’t feel included, instead seeing the plan as the latest chapter in Columbia’s history of piecemeal expansion in the neighborhood.

Board member Anita Barberis, who has lived on Haven Avenue for over 50 years, said she has watched Columbia and NewYork-Presbyterian take over land “bit by bit.”

“They’re providing their community with this plaza,” Barberis said. “It’s not for us. We don’t sit out there with a latte that costs 10 bucks. It’s for the students.”

A proposed pedestrian plaza would close off Haven Avenue to non-emergency vehicles between 168th and 169th streets. This image shows the new route that vehicles would take.(Courtesy of Columbia University Medical Center)

Others see it differently, including longtime board member Maria Luna, who said the neighborhood would benefit from a new green space to sit and relax.

“We don’t have places like this in our community,” Luna said. “For people in our community that are limited [physically] … I think this is a plus.”

DOT endorsed the plan in January after it was proposed last August, but the project will stall without support from Community Board 12. The plaza would become the 74th such space—and the 57th that is open to the public—under the NYC Plaza program.  

Officials said Monday that the plaza would start as a one-year trial, constructed with portable materials to allow for adjustments. One-way traffic on 169th Street between Haven Avenue and Fort Washington Avenue would be reversed to allow cars to turn left onto 169th Street before hitting the plaza, which would be protected by bollards. Columbia and NewYork-Presbyterian would provide private security.

Since last summer, Columbia has partnered with local groups to host several one-day plaza events at the proposed site, with over 3,000 people in attendance at each. Survey responses collected at the events showed overwhelming support for a permanent plaza, but most respondents were not local residents. Out of 172 people surveyed last September, 95 said they worked in the area and 50 said they were patients or students on the campus. Only 20 said they were attending because they live nearby.

Officials have held three public workshops about the plan since June and will hold a fourth Oct. 11, in response to residents who say they were not notified about the previous meetings.

“In these sessions we’ve heard a lot of concerns, as well as a lot of excitement for the plaza as an open space for arts, culture, relaxation and other types of amenities,” said Sandra Harris, Columbia’s vice president of government and community affairs.  

Harris said her team would work with DOT and Sam Schwartz Engineering to review existing parking regulations and identify new spots in the blocks around the campus. Board members also suggested that Columbia offer overnight parking to residents in spaces reserved for employees.

The committee floated a host of ideas Monday to try to create an equitable arrangement for local residents, including an annual payment by Columbia to the community and opportunities for local vendors to sell food on the plaza.

One board member, Gerard Dengel, said Columbia and NewYork-Presbyterian should agree to stop growing their footprint in the coming years. Patrick Burke, who helps manage capital projects for the medical center, said there are no plans for expansion in the pipeline.

One-way traffic on 169th Street between Haven Avenue and Fort
Washington Avenue would be reversed under the proposed plan. (Courtesy
of Columbia University Medical Center)