Police Called to CB9 After Walkout Over Language Dispute
By Melissa Repko
Issue date: 5/2/07 Section: News
Though the audience was generally supportive of Stringer's plans, several attendees objected to the lack of a Spanish translator at the meeting. Recently, Latino representation has been a contentious issue for the board, and several members have formed an independent caucus to encourage more Latinos-who, according to the 2000 census, make up 43.2 percent of the district-to join CB9.
Shortly after the meeting began, a group of people from the Mirabal Sisters Cultural and Community Center-a non-profit social justice organization located in West Harlem-walked out of the room. About 20 of the people who left waited outside for Stringer to arrive after making noise during the meeting, sometimes shouting, "Now!" or "This is discrimination!" Around 10 minutes after Stringer arrived, two police cars came, said Luis Manuel Tejada, executive director of Mirabal Sisters. CB9 District Manager Lawrence McClean confirmed that he called the police "when they [those shouting] got loud and began to disrupt."
"Whenever there is an accumulation of people, there is a policy to call the police," CB9 chair Jordi Reyes-Montblanc said. "Not because it could get ugly, but just to keep things under control."
Despite the disruptions, CB9 members carried on with their discussion of Stringer's rezoning plan. The borough president's special district, which excludes the proposed area for Columbia's Manhattanville expansion, aims to fight gentrification in the area from 125th to 145th streets to the west of Convent Avenue. The rules for the district would enforce anti-harassment provisions for tenements, protect affordable housing, set height and density limits for buildings, and provide incentives for small businesses.
At the meeting, which drew an overflow crowd, Stringer and other representatives from his office said that the rezoning incorporated 10 suggestions from CB9's 197-A plan, a set of guidelines for development in West Harlem.
Before the current proposal, rezoning plans in West Harlem only dealt with the Manhattanville area where Columbia hopes to build a campus. Dan Golub, deputy director of land use and senior policy advisor to Stringer, emphasized that whether or not Columbia's expansion takes place, West Harlem must plan for the long-term. According to Golub, zoning in Harlem has not been updated since 1961.
"Development is not a bad thing-we're not against it. But it's got to be controlled, it's got to be planned for, it's got to meet community needs," Golub said. "If you leave them [Columbia] to their own devices on how to plan that campus, they'll steamroll everything in your community."
Many audience members expressed similar concerns about Columbia's expansion.
"The neighborhood needs to be down-zoned to prevent the kind of out-of-control zoning that's going on throughout the city, but we need to know that by doing that ... we're not giving away a development proposal to Columbia that we really, totally resent in this community," resident Mario Mazzoni said.
Despite audience pressure, Stringer said that he would not "play the crowd," but he did say that the rezoning proposal "is not a wink and a nod" to Columbia. "Columbia University cannot dominate this community. It must coexist with this community," he said, adding that he does not favor eminent domain but is committed to dialogue.
"I believe that they [Columbia's expansion and the proposed special district] are very complimentary," Sharyn O'Halloran, chair of the University Senate's External Relations Committee, said after the meeting. "I believe they are both working in the area's interest. ... Being a good neighbor is a policy Columbia strives for."
Reyes-Montblanc spoke in Spanish to explain to non-English speakers that there would be a later meeting held in Spanish. Though Latino attendees had called vociferously for a translator, some audience members were upset by his speaking in another language. "They don't need to do it," CB9 member Gladys Tinsley said, referring to a pledge by Anthony Borelli, director of land use, to hold an additional meeting in Spanish. "Just let them go."
"Every single elected official, every single community board, they have money to afford a translator," said Roberto De la Rosa, who works for a translation company and walked out of the meeting. "Why are they kicking people out when they have the money? This is ridiculous."
Stringer stressed that there will be meetings held in Spanish. "We're going to do a presentation for our friends who are Latinos and live in this community. ... We're committed to it, and we'll do it more than once," he said.
Stringer said that the presentation was only the first of many and that the rezoning proposal will be revised as needed. He stressed that the special district would benefit all groups even if it takes 20 or 30 years to notice the effects.
"A hot real-estate market with antiquated zoning laws are pushing not just African-American people out but also Latino people out, teachers out, students out, artists out," Stringer said.