It’s Columbia vs. Residents
Tyler Hicks/The New York Times
Columbia University is planning to expand its campus on 17 acres of land along
the Hudson River, from 125th Street to 133rd Street.
By TIMOTHY WILLIAMS
Published: November 20, 2006
When Columbia University announced plans three years ago to expand by building on 17 acres in West Harlem, the university stressed that it would work with its neighbors rather than risk stirring up long-held animosities.
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Columbia University's Expansion Plan
The Empire Zone
Coverage of politics in New York,
New Jersey and Connecticut.
G. Paul Burnett/The New York Times
Jordi Reyes-Montblanc, chairman of
the local community board, says
Columbia University has done little to
gain residents’ trust.
But before the release of an environmental report for the $7 billion project, opponents say Columbia has antagonized Harlem residents by insisting that it has the right to seek eminent domain to force property owners out.
“On a scale of 1 to 10, Columbia is a minus 5 in terms of trust,” said Jordi Reyes-Montblanc, chairman of the local community board. “I honestly believe that Columbia has made a tremendous effort to overcome its history, but in the process, they’ve made so many snafus that it hasn’t really helped them.”
In recent months, the misunderstandings have only intensified.
Last week, for example, as Columbia and the city Department of Education worked to complete plans for a new public school in the neighborhood with an emphasis on math and science, parents held a demonstration, saying that the school’s proposed temporary location at an existing public school would be disruptive. Columbia is helping the school establish a curriculum, and the final home of the school will be on Columbia-owned property.
Columbia, however, said it had nothing to do with choosing the temporary site.
And during the past several weeks, some residents have become incensed as inspectors hired by the state have surveyed the neighborhood as part of a study to determine if the area should be considered blighted, a finding that could allow the state to use eminent domain to acquire property for the expansion.
With big demographic and economic changes occurring in Harlem as a backdrop, each side sees the expansion as critical to its future. For Columbia, it would allow an elite but cramped university to build additional academic and residential buildings, including new facilities for its arts and business schools and dozens of modern science research labs it needs to keep pace with other Ivy League universities.
Harvard University, for example, is seeking a new campus on 200 acres in Boston, and the University of Pennsylvania plans to expand on 40 acres in Philadelphia.
But for residents of West Harlem, Columbia’s expansion threatens the survival of their neighborhood. Columbia has already bought 65 percent of the properties in the area, and if the project is approved, all but three buildings in the 17-acre tract would be razed.
The low-rise neighborhood of apartment buildings, warehouses and auto-repair shops would be replaced by a cityscape designed by Renzo Piano and Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, in which glass-walled buildings would rise as high as 25 stories. (Mr. Piano also designed a new headquarters for The New York Times.) Because of the project’s potential to drive up nearby property values, many in the neighborhood say they fear widespread displacement if the necessary rezoning for the campus is approved, which could happen as early as next summer.
While university officials play down the simmering tension, longtime residents say the relationship between campus and community is at its most fraught since 1968.
That year, violent protests erupted after the university proposed building a university gymnasium in Morningside Park with separate entrances for students and residents of the predominantly poor, African-American neighborhood.
The two sides are at such odds that they cannot even agree on a name for the area: The university calls it Manhattanville, while most residents refer to it as West Harlem.
“I was real hopeful at the beginning of the process, but over the last few years things have really broken down,” said the Rev. Earl Kooperkamp, rector at St. Mary’s Episcopal Church.
Lee C. Bollinger, president of Columbia, and a law school student there in 1968, said the university had come a long way since the 1960s. The new campus, he said, would benefit both the university and the neighborhood.
“Everybody who lives there will be better off,” he said last summer. “Everyone is pleased with the way Columbia has dealt with them.”
The new campus, which would be built over 25 years on a narrow strip of land parallel to the Hudson River, from 125th Street to 133rd Street, would be among the largest developments in recent city history. It would also be Columbia’s largest expansion since it moved from Midtown Manhattan to Morningside Heights in 1897.
The first of two construction phases for the campus would be completed by 2015 and include the new science, arts and business buildings.
Plans for the second stage are less clear, but could include new dormitories and academic buildings, as well as swimming and diving pools. In all, the campus would have 17 new buildings.
West Harlem residents say they are not opposed to Columbia’s expansion, but have a competing plan that emphasizes building more affordable housing and retaining the area’s light industry.
Columbia’s proposal does not include affordable housing and would eliminate all of the light industry.
Since the Industrial Revolution, the area has been dominated by industry — in the mid-19th century it had a mill and a brewery, and later, the neighborhood contained dairy and automobile plants, including an old Studebaker factory, which Columbia plans to preserve.
Currently, meat packing plants, car repair shops, moving and storage warehouses, and a Metropolitan Transportation Authority bus depot are on the site. About 400 people also live in apartment buildings there.
Columbia has said it intends to pay their relocation costs if the area is rezoned and it is allowed to start its expansion project.
Though the university has been buying property in the area for years, several large commercial landowners have refused to sell. In response, Columbia has said it might seek to have eminent domain invoked.
That prospect has caused alarm in the area, where opposition to eminent domain runs deep among many African-Americans because it was used for urban renewal projects in the 1960s that demolished entire neighborhoods and replaced them with public housing towers.
“Any neighborhood wants to see improvements, but not at the risk of people being driven out,” said Nellie Bailey, executive director of the Harlem Tenants Council.
But Mr. Bollinger said the issue is not negotiable.
“I would be irresponsible as president of Columbia to give up eminent domain,” he said. “We have done nothing to initiate eminent domain, and I hope not to have to use eminent domain.”
However, he added, “We should be prepared to use it.”
To that end, in a 2004 letter to the Empire State Development Corporation, Columbia asked the state agency to “consider the condemnation of portions of the property not under Columbia control.”
The community board has signaled its discontent by voting unanimously to oppose the use of eminent domain, and several members have said they will oppose the project unless Columbia pledges not to seek those powers.
While the board’s role is only advisory, the expansion’s rejection by the panel would probably weigh heavily on the City Planning Commission and the City Council, which must approve the project.
Anne Z. Whitman, the owner of Hudson Moving and Storage, said Columbia had offered $4 million for her six-story, 35,000-square-foot building — though she has repeatedly told the university she has no plans to move.
Ms. Whitman believes the university will eventually try to condemn her building through eminent domain.
In a 2004 letter to Ms. Whitman, the university said it would be “impossible” for her business to remain, given Columbia’s expansion plans.
“No way Columbia is going to steal this property right out from underneath me,” she said. “Remember that man who stood in front of the tank at Tiananmen Square? That’s me.”
Nicholas Sprayregen, president of Tuck-It-Away Self-Storage, is the largest property owner in the area with five buildings and almost 300,000 square feet of space. He said he has spent several hundred thousand dollars fighting Columbia and is willing to spend more.
He has hired Norman Siegel, a civil rights lawyer, and has pledged to take the case to the United States Supreme Court if Columbia seeks to use eminent domain.
“No one is saying to Columbia, ‘You can’t have a campus here,’ ” he said. “They say they have to have everything and they won’t give a reason why — because there is no reason.”
Mr. Bollinger said the university is seeking ownership of the entire 17 acres because it wants a contiguous campus.
Other university officials said that once they sign a community benefits agreement with West Harlem, much of the opposition will dissipate.
This fall, the community board organized a local development corporation to conduct negotiations with Columbia for a benefits package.
The eventual agreement could include items like establishing a fund to prevent displacement because of rising rents or building an asthma clinic.
But opponents said a benefits package would not resolve several points of disagreement with Columbia, including the possibility of hazardous chemical and biological research and animal testing at the proposed science laboratories.
While Columbia has said the expansion would create 7,000 jobs, Mr. Reyes-Montblanc, the chairman of the community board, said he was skeptical about the sort of employment that would be offered.
“Most of the people in our community do not come close to the requirements for lab jobs,” he said. “What’s left are less desirable types of work, like janitorial jobs.”
Columbia officials said that the university would do what it could to help meet West Harlem’s needs, but said that there were limits to what it could do.
“We’ve got to make sure we do the right thing,” said Robert Kasdin, a senior executive vice president at the university, who is overseeing the expansion. “And whatever we do, we will be subject to criticism because we can’t fix the underlying problems.”