Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Students Declare South Lawn Blighted

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Students Declare South Lawn Blighted
Locals and Students Protest Possible Use of Eminent Domain in CU Expansion Zone
By Anna Phillips
Issue date: 2/20/07 Section: News
Media Credit: Aliya Khaki

Standing behind the Sundial yesterday, a gathering of Columbia students and local residents came together to make an unusual statement. Before a small crowd of students and members of the media, they deemed South Lawn, a rectangle of grass on Columbia's campus now buried beneath brown snow, blighted.

"The lawn over there has been seized and declared blighted," said Student Coalition on Expansion and Gentrification member Rowan Moore Gerety, CC '07. "It was not being fully utilized," he said, going on to name the various activities Columbia students and staff use the field for-among them, studying, sports, and heartfelt conversations.

The declaration was a nod to the neighborhood conditions study being conducted by the Empire State Development Corporation, which is being reimbursed for the costs of the study by Columbia. A draft of the General Project Plan for the expansion, prepared by Columbia lawyers, presumed that the study would find the area blighted, paving the way for ESDC to use eminent domain to take property and turn it over to Columbia.

The conditions necessary for a blight finding are not clearly defined by law, but overcrowding, deteriorating buildings, irregularity of plots, crime, lack of sanitation, fire hazards, pollution, and diverse land ownership that makes assembling tracts of property difficult have been among contributing factors in past cases.

The noon event was composed of several community activists such as Coalition to Preserve Community leader Tom DeMott, Harlem Tenants' Council President Nellie Bailey, and Nick Sprayregen, owner of a storage company in Manhattanville. It was a typical crowd of expansion opponents, but this time they were joined by members of the SCEG, most of whom stood behind the speakers holding anti-expansion signs.

Most of the speakers praised the students who stood by them. Community Board 9 member Vicky Gholson addressed those in the audience. "You should not be used as a tool by the administration of Columbia University," she said. "Do not separate yourself from this argument, from this fight."

For all its humor and bite, the blight declaration and protest had little effect on Columbia administrators, who knew of the event weeks in advance. The protestors are "comparing space on a campus that is used by students and administration for events and recreation and ceremonies to an area that, in fact, for some time now, and not just when Columbia began purchasing property there, has had a diminished number of jobs ... I don't know how you can compare that," said Columbia spokeswoman La-Verna Fountain. "About one tenth of one percent of the student body participated," she added.

But Moore Gerety said he was pleased with the student turnout and media attention. "Any publicity that's not coming directly from Columbia's administration is good publicity," he said. DeMott said that upon hearing the students' plans to declare South Lawn blighted, he had laughed. "But it was right on the money," he said. "It had some humor and an echo of protests past."

NB- Dr. Vicky Gholson participated exclusively in her private capacity and any opinions expressed are solely her own and are notto be taken as the represention of any Committee or the Chairman, Officers or membership of Community Board 9 Manhattan.

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