Many in West Harlem would be booted from their homes
BY DOUGLAS FEIDEN
DAILY NEWS STAFF WRITER
When Columbia University looks at West Harlem, it sees an urban moonscape: Desolate and underutilized, it is occupied mostly by auto body shops, chain-link fences and roll-down metal gates. It must be demolished.
When Luisa Henriquez walks the same blocks, she sees the American Dream: Inexpensive and friendly, it is the only place in New York City today where she can afford to buy her own home. It must be preserved.
That clash between town and gown is part of a land battle that has erupted over Manhattanville, a 17-acre industrial parcel near the Hudson River that's bigger than the site of the World Trade Center.
Columbia wants to tear down most of the low-rise buildings, and relocate the low-income inhabitants and blue-collar workers. Over a 25-year period, it would build a gleaming $7 billion super-campus, creating 6.8 million square feet of space by 2030 to ensure its competitive future.
But the elite school isn't the only party worried about its future. Faced with the threat of forced evictions, eminent domain and the wrecking ball minority residents and employees in the thinly populated neighborhood are fighting back.
"I've been here for 30 years, I raised my two daughters here. This is my home, my safe haven, my dream come true," said Henriquez, a 52-year old assistant teacher. "I came from the Dominican Republic to find a place like this. Why should I be forced to leave?"
Asked Eduardo Chipe, 66, a cardboard box-maker from Ecuador who has lived in the same building for 38 years, "Why would Columbia threaten our well-being? Where will we go if they kick us out? And what will happen to the children?"
Columbia pledges it will secure "equal or better" housing in the area for all the tenants it eventually displaces.
"We have enormous respect for the people residing in the area, and we will do everything in our power to make their lives better and to make any transition for them as easy as possible," said spokeswoman La-Verna Fountain.
Over two weeks, the Daily News toured Columbia's proposed expansion zone - from 125th to 133rd Sts., between Broadway and 12th Ave. - talking to dozens of immigrant residents, workers, owners of family businesses and artists priced out of SoHo, Williamsburg and the East Village.
"It's not the Garden of Eden," said Alonzo Cisneros, 42, an auto mechanic from Uruguay who has worked in six area shops for 18 years. "But it pays the rent and feeds the kids and it would be a crime to tear it down."
The side streets also reveal hidden treasures that would vanish in any Columbia expansion, like "Hint House," the artist's colony on W. 131st St. that serves as an affordable studio and practice/performance space for 30 artists and musicians.
"The university wants to flatten everything. But it's not thinking about the things that make the city work - like preserving space for artists and furniture restorers and yes, auto shops and storage warehouses," said Tamara Gayer, who lives in Hint House and exhibits in Chelsea galleries.
The dispute has become so heated that even the neighborhood name is fueling debate: Residents call it West Harlem, but Columbians prefer Manhattanville. "They want to take the 'Harlem' out of Harlem," Cisneros said.
Meanwhile, real estate agents trying to cash in have dubbed it "Viva" - or Viaduct Valley - a reference to the elevated trestles for Riverside Drive and the Broadway IRT line that bookend the site.
For Columbia, the stakes are immense. It wants to rezone and redevelop a tract almost as big as Rockefeller Center - and erase most traces of its 19th century industrial past.
In its place would rise numerous glass-curtained towers up to 25 stories tall, homes for a business school and an arts school, plus dormitories, research labs, green spaces and maybe even a hotel and a swimming pool.
An average of 1,200 hardhats a year would labor for 22 years, Fountain said. By 2030, the Ivy League school would add some 6,900 full-time jobs, including scientists seeking cures for asthma, Alzheimer's and Parkinson's diseases.
But first, Columbia says, it needs a contiguous site. It now owns or controls about 70% of the proposed campus and wants to buy or otherwise negotiate acquisitions for the rest.
There are just two problems: Most of the 425 West Harlem residents, who live in 132 apartment units, don't want to move out. And many of the remaining business owners, who employ some 1,200 people, don't want to sell.
So Columbia has asked the Empire State Development Corp. to consider condemning the properties it wants through eminent domain, a controversial practice in which the state takes private properties, at fair market price, ostensibly for a public purpose.
That threat enrages community leaders: "We were promised dialogue, but eminent domain is bulldozer talk," said the Rev. Earl Kooperkamp, pastor of St. Mary's Episcopal Church on W. 126th St.
"My parishioners are scared to death they're going to be put out on the street."
Defiant property owners vow they'll fight any condemnation efforts in court.
"I can't move and I won't move," said Nick Sprayregen, the president of Tuck-It-Away Self-Storage, who owns five warehouse buildings in the area and employs 50 community residents. Columbia is after four of his properties.
"I'm not a supply house for linens that can park my trucks anywhere. I serve 3,000 local families and businesses and I have to be near my customers. Location matters."
So does family: His father, Gerald, started the company, on Broadway and W. 131st St., in 1980. His sister and brother-in-law work there. And his 13-year-old daughter, Emily, has spent school vacations learning the business.
Emily could run the Sprayregen firm one day, he says, and his desire to keep it in the family is why he refuses to sell - and why he hired civil rights lawyer Norman Siegel and spent nearly $400,000 in legal and other bills battling Columbia.
Observers say several other businesses initially talked tough, blasting the school and vowing they'd never sell - then cut deals.
Columbia says most local companies it negotiated with praise its professionalism, and Fountain released letters from three firms thanking it for acting in good faith.
One satisfied customer: The world-famous Madame Alexander Doll Co., at 615 W. 131st. St., which runs a doll showroom and a doll museum, provides doll doctors and conducts factory tours by appointment.
"We're staying in the area, and Columbia made it possible," said Rob Porell, the chief financial officer. He didn't provide details, but said Columbia helpfully addressed Alexander's current and long-term business needs.
Less satisfied are Luisa Henriquez, Eduardo Chipe and the other tenants of a 30-unit, city-owned apartment building on W. 132nd St. that Columbia wants to raze.
Henriquez says the 98 residents were told nothing about the fate of their home until a community board meeting at which Columbia displayed a three-dimensional model of its planned campus: "I looked and looked, and then I asked, 'Where is 602 W. 132nd St.? Where is my home?'"
"There is no such building, it doesn't exist," Henriquez says the university official told her.
Actually, the building has quite a story. Henriquez and her neighbors have spent years fixing it up as part of a unique city program that allows low-income renters to earn sweat equity in their apartments and eventually purchase them as co-ops for $250. Tenants are projected to take title in 2011.
Home ownership had always seemed an impossible dream to the residents, mostly immigrants from Central and South America who work for low or minimum wages in fast-food restaurants, hotels and as home health-care workers.
But Columbia has already held preliminary talks with the city about buying the building and finding replacement housing for the occupants.
Fountain says they won't have to move any earlier than 2015 under the 30-year expansion timetable. Columbia would then relocate them into equal or superior housing, where they'd still be able to purchase TIL co-ops for a nominal $250.
Henriquez says it's wrong to ask 98 people to move when they've worked so hard to stay:
"Columbia University is trying to take away our dream, and our children's dream, which is 602 W. 132nd St.," she said. "Somehow, that doesn't seem very American to me."
Originally published on February 25, 2007