Friday, May 05, 2006

University Pushes for Support of Expansion

Columbia Spectator

Year in Review

Click here for a PDF of Year in Review.

University Pushes for Support of Expansion
By Erin Durkin Spectator Staff Writer
May 05, 2006

More than ever before, Columbia administrators seemed to decide this year that the time had come to promote the University�s Manhattanville expansion plans. From making representatives available for marathon meetings, to promising to build a magnet high school, to offering to negotiate a community benefits agreement, 2005-2006 saw the University seeking to convince community members�or at least the elected officials who have an official say in the plan�s success�that the expansion will do them more good than harm.

Few, however, have been won over because the fundamental sources of conflict remain largely unchanged: if the expansion plan goes forward, the tenants of 140 housing units on the site will be displaced, and they do not want to move. Owners of auto shops and other small businesses housed in buildings that are being rapidly bought up by Columbia will be displaced as well, and the state may use eminent domain to forcibly buy property from business owners who have refused to sell to the University. Residents of the surrounding area fear that the University�s presence will drive up rents. And, for better or for worse, the neighborhood will be fundamentally transformed from an industrial, working class area to one dominated by an Ivy League University and its affiliates.

In October, the University received a positive declaration from the city indicating that it would have to prepare an Environmental Impact Statement exploring the effects of its development plans on aspects such as open space, traffic, air quality, noise, and socioeconomic conditions.
Columbia produced a draft scope for the EIS, in which they revealed their illustrative plan for the campus, containing 17 buildings, ranging from seven to 20 stories: six academic buildings, seven research buildings, one retail building, one recreational building, and two residential buildings, presumably for faculty or grad student housing. Under an alternate plan, one academic building at 125th Street and Broadway could instead be developed into a hotel and conference center.

Columbia held five informational meetings with Community Board 9 leading up to a formal scoping session in mid-November. The University earned some points just for showing up�during the previous year, administrators had avoided community meetings almost entirely and rarely answered questions publicly about their expansion plans. In addition, Maxine Griffith, who was brought on board in July as executive vice president for government and community affairs and became the public face of the expansion plans this year, has deep roots in the West Harlem community and long-standing relationships with many community leaders.

Nonetheless, the thrust of the meetings was critical. Attendees accused Columbia of lacking transparency in their actions and merely paying lip service to community concerns. The University agreed to weigh the 197-a plan, a development framework passed by CB9, as an alternative in its EIS. But they repeatedly refused to take eminent domain off the table and were noncommittal when asked to look for ways to avoid displacement of residents and businesses rather than merely �mitigating� this displacement.

Columbia did promise for the first time this year that it would relocate tenants who will be displaced by the expansion. However, many tenants said this wasn�t good enough, as they do not want to move. �I don�t want to be relocated. I want to stay where I am,� said Mary Granada, a resident of Manhattanville for 30 years, at a large protest on campus in April. Tenants also protested the fact that Columbia has been discussing their relocation with the city without tenant involvement, as revealed in documents obtained by Spectator last November under the Freedom of Information Law.

At the Nov. 15 scoping session, more than 70 people rose to comment on the expansion plans and not one expressed unqualified support. Fiery denunciations of Columbia as greedy, dishonest, and racist earned raucous applause from the packed auditorium.

Since January, the legal process has been in the hands of the Department of City Planning, which will consider public comments and issue a final scope on which Columbia will base its EIS. Once that study is complete, the University will begin the Uniform Land Use Review Process to rezone the area.

While beginning the legal process and attempting to reach out to the community, Columbia also publicized some major components of the proposed campus. In October, Mayor Michael Bloomberg and University President Lee Bollinger announced that Columbia and the city would collaborate to open a public magnet school for science and engineering. The school, slated to open in fall 2007, will serve grades 6 through 12, and will offer admission preference to children who live in northern Manhattan.

In March, Bollinger made another major announcement, again with the mayor by his side and this time also flanked by Representative Charlie Rangel (D-Harlem): Columbia would use a $200 million gift received from the widow of Jerome Greene to build a Mind, Brain and Behavior Center on the corner of 125th Street and Broadway. Bollinger said he hoped it would be �the world�s pre-eminent center for education and research in the neurosciences.�

Community leaders were cautiously receptive to the school and the science center, while insisting that these projects were not reflective of the expansion plan as a whole.

CB9 Chair Jordi Reyes-Montblanc said of the magnet school, ��The expansion is the expansion and the school is the school ... We are very happy about the school ... [but] they are two different and completely independent actions as far as I�m concerned.� His reaction to the neuroscience center was similar. �Personally I think it�s great that such research with its promised benefits to humanity will take place in our district. The matter of the expansion and discussions and negotiations that may ensue are not directly connected to this project.�

While being careful not to present an explicit quid pro quo, University officials have emphasized the benefits of these projects and tacitly suggested that their expansion must be allowed to go forward as planned if they are to come to fruition. Bollinger touted the potentially disease-curing research that will take place at the Mind, Brain and Behavior Center, which could not be built on the Morningside campus due to space constraints. In reference to the magnet school, he said, �I would never say we would never do something like this without Manhattanville, but it would certainly make it far more difficult for us to do a project like this ... At the same time, it�s my view that the general sense of Columbia in [Manhattanville expansion] discussions ought to be and will be affected by what we are doing in conjunction with this project.�

And Griffith said about the school, �I don�t want to speak for the school district, but if it were surrounded by auto body repair shops I�m not sure whether they would feel that that was an appropriate location for a high school. So there�s obviously synergy, but we don�t expect some kind of bonus points for doing it. We�re doing it because it�s the right thing to do.�

One mechanism that might substantially change the terms of the debate is a community benefits agreement which University officials have promised to negotiate. If CBAs reached in conjunction with other development projects are any guide, such an agreement might contain commitments to build affordable housing and set aside jobs for local residents.

Yet negotiations have been delayed as CB9 works to form a Local Development Corporation, a task they acknowledge has been more difficult than anticipated. In the fall, University officials said meetings toward a CBA would begin in January. In January, while acknowledging a delay, Bollinger said he hoped they would begin the following month. As of the beginning of May, talks had yet to commence.

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