Sunday, January 21, 2007

Columbia, play nice

New York Daily News

Columbia, play nice

In plan to expand, a dialogue could turn foes to friends

With Brooklyn's Atlantic Yards project finally moving forward, it seems like the men and women working on the city's next mega-project - Columbia University's plan to build a major research campus in the Manhattanville section of West Harlem - have learned nothing from what happened in Brooklyn. Instead of working full time to arrive at a shared vision in a spirit of mutual compromise, Columbia and many local leaders in West Harlem appear poised to square off in a tangle of lawsuits, protests and accusations.

After years of quietly acquiring land and buildings in the mostly industrial corridor west of Broadway between 125th and 133rd Sts., Columbia announced ambitious plans to build a new research facility, dormitories and community amenities like a Bryant Park-style open greenspace and a state-of-the-art high school. To do so, the city will have to rezone the area, which is currently designated for manufacturing.

All well and good. But the university - which owns about 85% of all the property in the project area - has refused to rule out the tactic of asking the state government to acquire the remaining parcels on behalf of the university by the use of eminent domain, forcing holdouts to sell even if they don't want to.

That makes Nick Sprayregen's blood boil. The 43-year-old owner of Tuck-it-Away, a self-storage warehouse, operates a family business - based in West Harlem for more than 25 years - that includes ownership of half a dozen properties in the area Columbia wants to develop.
Dozens of Columbia students store their belongings with Sprayregen, and so do various academic departments and the university bookstore. His business will be more needed than ever as the school expands.

Sprayregen has been trying for more than a year to work out some kind of deal with Columbia, but has been unable to get a meeting with anybody.

"If Columbia somehow ends up with 85% of what they want, they can still build a wonderful campus," says Sprayregen. "But this is not a business I can just move elsewhere. It's not necessary for them to strong-arm every last person."

In fact, it's not necessary for Columbia to strong-arm anybody. As developer Bruce Ratner proved with Atlantic Yards, an early round of talks with legitimate, longstanding community leaders can calm fears and serve as an important gesture of good faith toward local residents.
Ratner cut creative deals with groups like ACORN that had a constituency and a track record - and ended up committing to building more than 2,200 units of subsidized apartments at Atlantic Yards. Brooklyn Assemblyman Hakeem Jeffries stepped forward at the last minute and won an agreement from Ratner to build 200 units of subsidized homes that people will own.

Columbia should be engaged in active dialogue with Sprayregen and other West Harlem stakeholders, but the university has chosen - at the request of the Bloomberg administration - to start the city's land-use clock ticking before negotiating with community groups. That means neighborhood people will have only about nine months to arrive at whatever deal they can, in a high-pressure atmosphere that's already creating resentment.

"They have this all-or-nothing concept," says Sprayregen, who has hired civil rights attorney Norman Siegel to look into possible legal action to block Columbia - an early sign that the university's hard-nose strategy isn't working.

The city's political and business leaders need to step up as soon as possible to head off a fight that doesn't need to happen.

Originally published on January 21, 2007

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