Monday, December 04, 2006

Columbia and Expansion: A Recipe for Disaster

Columbia Spectator
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Columbia and Expansion: A Recipe for Disaster
By Jordi Reyes-Montblanc
Issue date: 12/4/06 Section: Opinion

Columbia University is a great institution: for 250 years, it has been among the premier institutions of higher education both in the United States and in the world. Columbia says it needs to expand, and most reasonable people agree-not just the University's spokesmen. And West Harlem is an ideal expansion target because Columbia already owns a substantial number of the properties there and it is within walking distance of the Morningside Heights main campus.

But West Harlem is also one of those unique areas of New York where many different people live together in a fairly harmonious way. Non-Latino whites, non-Latino blacks, Latinos, English-speakers and Spanish-speakers of many different origins, cultures, and ethnicities thrive in the most diverse community of two languages in the city of New York. This is where "Columbia University in the City of New York" coexists and wants to expand. After over a hundred years of being located in West Harlem, you would think the Columbia University Board of Trustees would have a good understanding of, sympathy for, and empathy with our communities.

Unfortunately that is not the case. The Board of Trustees is made up of highly successful, powerful, wealthy people who only have a vague recollection of their student days in Morningside or Washington Heights; they have no rapport or desire to really understand our communities. Their only concern is the expansion -damn the torpedoes.

Well, torpedoes are exactly what the trustees are finding as they attempt to shove their views into the collective throats of the residents of Community Planning District 9 Manhattan represented by Community Board 9 Manhattan. For almost 20 years, our community worked, in many instances with Columbia's assistance, in developing our 197-a plan that gives form and substance to the desires of our diverse communities. Under CB9M's 197-a plan, Columbia can expand and the community is not displaced or inconvenienced. Moreover, the quality of life is enhanced for the whole of the CB9M territory, from West 110th Street to West 155th Street and from roughly St. Nicholas Avenue to the Hudson River.

The 17 acres targeted for the expansion is a fairly small area when compared to the CB9M district; however, within those 17 acres and within the additional 18 acres that Columbia's 197-c plan encompasses for rezoning are a number of apartment buildings and many small businesses that employ more than 1100 people. Most residents of the district are threatened with loss and displacement.

For many years Columbia has acquired properties in the area that have then been removed from use and stand either vacant or underutilized. In the last four years, Columbia has gone on a buying binge and acquired many additional properties. Following the University's acquisition of the properties, existing businesses close and move out. West Harlem is an industrial area, and therefore very utilitarian structures predominate, many with a beauty and history worth preserving that Columbia wants to raze in order to build the new campus.

The trustees have dictated that Columbia must obtain every inch of the 17 acres targeted, regardless of the means. Since many businesses have been resisting Columbia's offers, the administration has gone to the Empire State Economic Development Corporation and advanced the group $300,000 to produce a blight study, a precursor of condemnation procedures that may eventually lead to the state's use of eminent domain and the conveying of such properties to Columbia University. So families that have run their businesses in West Harlem for generations are now subject to a continuous pressure to sell that many classify as harassment. People have sold out to Columbia based on the threat of eminent domain and the knowledge that compensation under eminent domain is never commensurate with the real market value. When the mafia does something like that, it's called extortion-when Columbia real estate agents do it, we are supposed to accept it as business acumen.

Suddenly, just prior to when the Columbia paid-consultants started their EIS study, a rash of graffiti smearing took place on properties in the target area. Many people find this action too coincidental to be a coincidence. The EIS study is used by ESDC to create their general program-which includes provisions for the so-called blight study precursor to condemnation and eminent domain. The fact is that the only properties in distressed condition in West Harlem are Columbia University properties. A blight study will, if conducted professionally and without bias, reveal that there is no blight and that only Columbia properties are distressed and could qualify as blighted. The blight Columbia is seeking is really within its own properties, whether they were bought yesterday or 20 years ago. It has been Columbia's actions, or lack thereof, that have created the underutilization and closing of many area businesses. Any properties deserving condemnation are Columbia's. If the University is successful in using eminent domain, those Columbia properties should be conveyed to local developers that will actually be guided by CB9M's 197-a plan.

CB9M facilitated the establishment of a local development corporation, widely representative of the various community interests by electing directors that represent whole segments of the CB9M communities. The West Harlem LDC currently has 27 directors, two of whom are representatives of CB9M. Thus any community benefits agreement reached is totally independent of the CB9M public review and hopefully the political influences that Columbia can bring into play. The public review process (Uniform Land Use Review Process) will be independently conducted by CB9M regardless of whatever community benefits agreement the LDC and Columbia agree on. Any consideration for possible changes to CB9M's 197-a plan will go through the same open, public, and participatory manner as was done to create the 197-a plan to ensure that the desires and aspirations expressed by our communities' are respected. The expectations of Columbia really exceed the targeted 17 acres for its 30-year development plan. In fact, by rezoning 35 acres, Columbia ensures that it will not have to return to the community board or the communities in the future. That is, while the 17 acres are Columbia's 30-year plan, the 35 acres have been called by some Columbia's 50-year plan.

Columbia University has stated that it wants a "partnership with the community and the community would welcome a partnership of equals." West Harlem will not be a minority partner and even less a silent partner; we shall be equal partners or no partners at all. We have expressed our opposition to eminent domain, our concerns about the research facilities, displacement, and housing affordable to our communities, and so far Columbia's trustees have failed miserably. The history of Columbia's relationship with the communities is one that is spotty at best. The good the communities do-and they do a lot of good-the trustees trample on with arrogant disdain and lack of respect for our communities, believing that they best know what is good for our community. This is shameful and a formula for failure. Columbia may get their expansion over the objections of the community, but then Columbia will no longer be the great institution, the cradle of honesty, integrity and altruism it claims to be. The full weight of that disgrace will fall on the shoulders of the trustees who presided over the moral downfall of a great educational institution turned into some sort of mercantilistic, neocolonial entity that should no longer call itself Columbia University.

1 comment:

Grey Wolf-6 said...

Proposed Expansion Will Improve Rather Than Hurt the Community

To the Editor:

I wish to respond to Jordi Reyes-Montblanc's article, "Columbia and Expansion: A Recipe for Disaster" (Dec. 4), regarding Columbia's proposal for an expanded presence in the old Manhattanville manufacturing zone of West Harlem.

Columbia's proposal would bring a mix of academic research, cultural, retail, and community facilities primarily to the four large blocks bounded roughly by 125th Street, 133rd Street, 12th Avenue, and Broadway. These blocks are presently zoned for manufacturing, with a streetscape dominated by garages, storage facilities, and blank ground floors.

The University's proposal would not only provide much needed academic space for Columbia, but it would also generate a broader spectrum of economic activity in the area. An estimated 6,900 University jobs would be created in the area-not just for faculty and researchers, but for secretaries, lab technicians, electricians, and many others -providing a mix of jobs for people with a variety of skills, experience, and education. These positions would come with excellent health care, educational, and retirement benefits. We believe that these are exactly the kinds of jobs that help maintain a strong working and middle class in New York City.

We would also like to correct two misconceptions cited in Reyes-Montblanc's article.

First, the University is not developing acreage outside the 17 acres proposed for the new urban campus. The city requested that the University include a total of 35 acres by adding the area between 12th Avenue and Marginal Street and the waterfront in the rezoning application-this is not an unusual practice and has often occurred in other contexts. In fact, more than a third of this additional acreage is being rezoned to accommodate the new waterfront park, and much of it is actually underwater. Columbia is not purchasing additional properties in this area, which public documents make clear is not compatible with academic uses.

Second, the University is not causing "blight" in the area. In fact, Columbia is already renovating the Studebaker Building on 131st Street to become a new center for administrative offices. The University has also already made improvements to the Nash Building on Broadway and 132nd Street, where we have moved a number of administrative staff members. Along with Prentis Hall and 560 Riverside Drive on the south side of 125th Street, Columbia has a real investment in ensuring that these blocks are safe and appealing for local residents, as well as for University faculty, staff, and students in the area for many years to come.

University President Lee Bollinger also made clear, from the moment he announced the proposal to expand Columbia's urban academic community, that the new development must bring tangible benefits to the entire community-expanding existing partnerships and creating new ones to provide health care, educational and cultural enrichment, human services, and other investments in the quality of local life. We are eager to work with the West Harlem Local Development Corporation to discuss these possibilities and to identify additional benefits that Columbia would agree to bring.

Over the past three years, staff at Columbia have held more than 100 meetings with community representatives, elected officials, and Harlem civic leaders, and the proposed plan has been modified to incorporate many of the suggestions made at these discussions. As we move into the city's formal land use review process, which will include at minimum three public hearings, we welcome the opportunity to continue this dialogue with a wide range of stakeholders including Reyes-Montblanc and the members of Community Board 9.

Maxine Griffith, American Institute of Certified Planners

Dec. 6, 2006

The author is the executive vice president for Government and Community Affairs and is special adviser for campus planning.