April 4, 2007 -- COLUMBIA University's strategy to expand northward into Manhattanville is basically good for New York. Yet local support for the plan has been far from unanimous - and some of the hostility is Columbia's own fault.
Yes, part of the problem is the somehow ever-fresh historical legacy of 1968, when Columbia's plan to build a gym in Morningside Park provoked fierce community opposition. And part is the class antagonism generated by an exclusive, elite university bordered by struggling neighborhoods.
The sticking point is plainly Columbia's demand to get it all. Luisa Henriquez, who lives in a city-owned building on 132nd Street, puts it this way: "Columbia moving in is a bad thing because Columbia isn't willing to share."
Yet even the strongest Harlem supporters of the Manhattanville plan, like realtor Willie Kathryn Suggs, balk. "I don't want them invoking eminent domain for private use. It's not right," says Suggs. "The neighborhood will get safer streets and better restaurants. I want that to happen. But under the rules. If they want more property they should buy it fairly, like anyone else."
And the opponents are ferocious. Manhattanville's largest private property owner, Nick Sprayregen, President of Tuck-It-Away Self-Storage, says that Columbia wants four of his five buildings. (The fifth, which was landmarked last year, is being left alone.) "My father built this business, which I intend to hand onto my children," he says. "We worked hard for the neighborhood, and intend to be part of its success.
"I won't move," Sprayregen insists. "But Columbia wants it all - 100 percent of everything. They have no desire for nuance, for compromise, for diversity."
And a key reason the area is underdeveloped is the city's zoning laws - which reserve those blocks for industrial use, for which there have been few takers in decades.
"I can co-exist with Columbia," says Sprayregen. "Why can't Columbia coexist with me?"
Julia Vitullo-Martin is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute and author of the Center for Rethinking Development's newsletter, from which this is adapted.