Monday, March 14, 2005

Morningside And Its Money

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Morningside And Its Money
March 14, 2005

Those who have been following the battle over the proposed stadium on Manhattan's West Side got a renewed sense of the financial interests at stake last week when the state Commission on Lobbying disclosed the two sides spent $29 million last year to influence public opinion. The Jets spent $6.8 million to promote the idea of their new Manhattan home. Madison Square Garden, fearing competition from a nearby sports complex, spent $22 million to oppose it.

Thanks largely to this one epic battle, total spending on lobbying in New York in 2004 was $144 million, up from $120 million in 2003, according to the commission. In its annual report slated for official release later this month, the state lobbying commission reports that total spending on the state's 3,842 registered lobbyists in New York is double what it was five years ago.

But overshadowed in the news of the stadium lobbyists was last year's second-largest lobbying contract. According to the report, Columbia University paid the Manhattan law firm Kramer Levin Naftalis & Franklin $692,743 last year in an ongoing effort to develop its own West Side site. That payment, aimed at winning approval to rezone 18 acres for a new campus, is double the previous year's largest lobbying payout.

It is not clear how the money was spent. The lobbying report says Kramer Levin sought to influence Community Board 9, the City Council, the office of the Manhattan borough president, and the city Planning Commission. One of the lobbyists, Gary Tarnoff, said in a phone message that the firm represents Columbia University in connection with its rezoning application. A spokeswoman for the university, Alissa Kaplan Michaels, said the firm is "helping the University with general land use issues related to the proposed campus expansion." The application itself has apparently not yet been filed.

George Reyes-Montblanc, chairman of Community Board 9, said he is unfamiliar with the firm. "I have no knowledge of this organization other than vaguely that they may have accompanied Columbia University in one or two of the meetings along with their whole entourage or retinue of consultants, underlings, and other hangers-on," Mr. Reyes-Montblanc said. The decision on whether to rezone the area as part of a 30-year, $5 billion campus redevelopment project is in the hands of the community board, the president of Manhattan, C. Virginia Fields, and the City Council.

Looming over the project is the memory of another planned expansion in 1968. The so-called "Battle of Morningside Heights" resulted when students and administrators clashed over a proposed gym in Harlem that would not be open to neighborhood residents. Riots involving hundreds of police, students, and residents marred the university's public image in the community for years. School officials have made oral assurances that the current plan will result in jobs and other professional opportunities for the community.

More recently, Columbia has come under fire from Jewish students who say that professors at the school's department of Middle East and Asian Languages and Cultures are hostile to those who express support for Israel. The Israeli ambassador to America, Daniel Ayalon, cancelled plans to take part in a January conference at the school on the conflict in the Middle East. The conference, now postponed until September, was widely regarded as a public relations effort in light of the student complaints.

Negotiations on the proposed expansion have been slow. Columbia is said to own nearly half the land on which it hopes to expand and has offered to buy out or relocate the roughly 30 businesses that now occupy it. Community Board 9 wants the school to offer binding projections on job growth and to rule out the use of eminent domain. Several businesses have retained Norman Siegel, a civil liberties lawyer, to defend their cause. In a sign that talks are chilly, Mr. Reyes-Montblanc wrote of Kramer Levin in an e-mail note over the weekend: "... I dare say they failed miserably in whatever they might have had in mind or were promoting."

One of Columbia's primary arguments for expansion - that other Ivy League schools provide students with more space - is not convincing. Applications to the school have skyrocketed in recent years on the strength of dramatic reductions in city crime and the growing sense that Manhattan offers an incomparable urban experience. New York University, Cooper Union, and the New School for Social Research have all built and sustained strong reputations and enrollments with campuses far less grand than the always surprising expanse of lawn and classical lines that greet visitors to 116th Street.

Whatever one may think of Columbia or its plans, the university's approach says something about the way the real estate business in New York works. Buying property on the free market is just a fraction of the cost, whether you're a football team or an Ivy League university. Imagine how much cheaper a football ticket, or college tuition, or a Manhattan apartment might be if it didn't include the cost of businesses or institutions hiring lobbyists to negotiate their way through the city and state agencies, laws, and politicians that otherwise can get in the way.

Mr. McGuire is the Albany bureau man of The New York Sun.

March 14, 2005

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