UTS pledges funds to community from condo deal

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Union Theological Seminary to provide $5 million in community investment as part of campus project


  • Private developers will break ground next year on a condominium tower on the campus of Union Theological Seminary in Morningside Heights. The development is the result of an air rights transfer deal to fund $100 million in renovations to Union’s campus. Photo: David Merrett, via flickr

“Institutions and the developers who they work with should take notice of Union Theological Seminary’s lead and allocate a percentage of their windfall to mitigate the harm that we feel tall towers are causing to the community.”

Robert Stern, Morningside Heights Community Coalition

Union Theological Seminary, as part of an ongoing project to fund renovations to its facilities through an air rights deal permitting private developers to build a condominium tower on its campus, has announced plans to invest $5 million in community programs, much of which will address homelessness and displacement in Morningside Heights.

The community investment is a component of Union’s plan to pay for a $100 million campus revitalization project by allowing real estate firms L+M Development Partners and Lendlease to build a condo building in the northwestern part of Union’s campus, near West 122nd Street and Claremont Avenue.

Serene Jones, the president of Union Theological Seminary, said that the deal will allow Union to make needed improvements to campus infrastructure without making any expenditures from its endowment, which is the primary source for funding student scholarships. “We did not want to renovate our buildings but make our education so expensive no students could come,” Jones said, adding that Union hopes to eventually offer tuition-free education to all students.

“All of the money that we make from the sale of the air rights is going directly into the buildings,” Jones said.

The $5 million community investment, Jones said, reflects Union’s commitment to the Morningside Heights neighborhood. “From the start, we wanted to not just minimize the impact of whatever changes we made on the community, we actually wanted to view this whole campus revitalization as an opportunity to reach out and even more deeply seal our ties to the community.”

“We are now at a place where we feel we have come up with a plan for making sure that we can be here another hundred years and keep our community partners a central part of the work that we do,” she said. “We couldn’t feel better about it.”

Union will contribute $700,000 of the $5 million community investment directly to P.A.’L.A.N.T.E., a Harlem-based tenants’ rights organization that works to prevent displacement. “As New York continues to see economic growth, it’s important to remember the human impact that growing inequality and rising rents have on real people,” Elsia Vasquez, the executive director of P.A.’L.A.N.T.E., said in a statement. “We look forward to collaborating with Union to help New Yorkers remain in their homes.”

An additional $400,000 will be allocated to a community fund administered by New York Community Trust dedicated to supporting social services, projects and programs in Morningside Heights. Union will dedicate nearly $3 million to addressing homelessness through partnerships with advocacy organizations that work in Morningside Heights and New York City. The remaining $1 million will fund social justice programming at Union “to develop the next generation of activists and leaders.”

The development plan, first announced in 2015, has been met with opposition from some members of the Morningside Heights community, as well as some Union students and faculty, who are concerned that bringing new market-rate housing into the neighborhood will accelerate gentrification and lead to the displacement of longtime residents.

Union officials have not specified the projected size of the new building, but have said that the tower “will be approximately the same height as, but stay in respectful dialogue with” the tower of neighboring Riverside Church, which is 392 feet tall. The new building will also contain Union classrooms and offices on its lower floors, as well as apartments for faculty.

Robert Stern of the Morningside Heights Community Coalition, a neighborhood organization that worked with Union and local elected officials to negotiate the community benefits, praised Union for coming to the table and said his group is pleased with its investments, but said that his group remains opposed to the project.

“We’re still against the building going up, but since we couldn’t stop it we felt an obligation to get as much money as we could for the community,” he said.

Stern and others, including Council Member Mark Levine, have expressed hope that Union’s community investment will serve as a precedent for future development in Morningside Heights.

Union will begin renovations in June 2019, with construction on the new tower projected to start by late summer or early fall 2019. Union officials hope for the new building to be completed and all campus renovations finished by 2022.

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