Tuesday, February 06, 2007

Better Standards for Manhattanville

Columbia Spectator
Home > Opinion

Better Standards for Manhattanville
By Rowan Moore Gerety
Issue date: 2/5/07 Section: Opinion

As recently as April 30 of last year, Columbia's Web site about its proposed expansion into West Harlem declared that its plans were a reflection of "two of the institution's most important goals." On the one hand, the University's "urgent need for additional space," and on the other, "a continuation of the commitment to the communities of Upper Manhattan." It went on to say, "The University feels that it benefits enormously by living amid such creative and resilient communities. We must continue to intellectually engage the challenges of our world, and we must be physically and spiritually integrated into the fabric of our neighborhoods and this city."

After the revelation in Spectator of the contours of Columbia's General Project Plan ("Draft Plan Provides for Eminent Domain," Jan. 31), however, it is no surprise that the words on www.neighbors.columbia.edu have changed. It is abundantly clear that Columbia's presumption of blight in the preparation of its General Project Plan contradicts previous statements about "creative and resilient communities," and that the University's aggressive pursuit of eminent domain flies in the face of being "physically and spiritually integrated into the fabric of our neighborhoods."

Columbia's hypocrisy is staggering. The University owns or controls every abandoned and ill-maintained property in the projected expansion area, even as it tries to forcefully remove the tenacious community of residents and businesses that have flourished amid properties the University has left to rot. Indeed, in spite of repeated community requests that Columbia develop on the three-fourths of the area it already controls, the administration apparently believes that spiritual and physical integration are better achieved by kicking people out and bulldozing their homes and businesses.

Perhaps in order to compensate, the administration has recently escalated its rhetoric about West Harlem. Its newly updated Web site hails a planning process where "we have sought to work with our neighbors and community leaders to build a broad consensus on a shared future." If, as the University presumes in its General Project Plan, the exercise of eminent domain will be the necessary outcome of such a process, that process has clearly failed.

In its rationale for an all-or-nothing expansion, CU has consistently evoked its desire to remain competitive as one of the premiere research universities in the world. But Columbia has demonstrated through its expansion plans that it simply cannot keep up with peer institutions like Harvard. While Columbia boasts "breakthroughs in public health" and asthma research, it proposes a 25-year construction project in a neighborhood with one of the highest asthma rates in the nation, a project with end results that will not conform to widely respected standards of environmental stewardship. Harvard, however, has pledged to build all of the buildings in its recently announced 50-year expansion to the Gold Certification of LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design). Despite promises of "expanded economic opportunity," Columbia has not made any public or legal commitments to protecting existing affordable housing and living-wage jobs in West Harlem nor has it guaranteed that it will create more of either. Harvard, on the other hand, has already financed two affordable housing developments in the neighborhood where it plans to expand. Finally, while Columbia has relentlessly pressed the use of eminent domain, Harvard's plan operates under the assumption that it will not build on land it does not own or cannot buy. University officials will reply that all of these issues will be ironed out in ongoing negotiations for a Community Benefits Agreement, but those negotiations are legally mandated. Columbia should be leading the way, not simply following minimum standards of legal compliance.

I, like the members of Manhattan's Community Board 9, invite Columbia to live up to its ideals and to its peer institutions by developing within the framework of CB 9's 197-A plan, which calls for concrete commitments to affordable housing, living wage jobs, and environmental sustainability. That is the way the University can "strengthen links with our neighbors in Upper Manhattan." As it stands now, Jordi Reyes-Montblanc is right that CU's actions are "beneath contempt." Eminent domain simply isn't part of good-faith negotiations.

No comments: