Friday, June 01, 2007

Rage building in Harlem

Rage building in Harlem
Friday, June 1st 2007, 4:00 AM

The man from Columbia University's real estate division refused to take no for an answer, says Ann Whitman, owner of Hudson Moving and Storage Co. in West Harlem.

"Each time he called me on the phone, I told him the same thing: My building is not for sale," Whitman recalled yesterday.

Her firm, which does specialty storage for artwork and antiques, has operated for the past 35 years out of the historic Sheffield Farms building on Broadway near 132nd St.

Whitman has some crazy notion that in America a property owner can refuse to sell to a private buyer.

Not any longer.

Not since real estate titans started using their money and influence to get local governments to condemn properties they want for their private projects.

This perversion of the original intent of eminent domain - which once was reserved for building schools or highways or other public projects - is becoming a national epidemic.

Whitman never expected that the great Columbia University, a private Ivy League institution that proudly trumpets its liberal values, would resort to the tactics of ruthless developers.

But that's exactly what happened, say community leaders, since university President Lee Bollinger announced several years ago his plan to expand and create a massive new 17-acre Columbia campus and biotech center north of 125th St.

"Columbia told me to sell now or face the government and eminent domain later," Whitman said.
Now she, several other small business owners and hundreds of low-income tenants in the footprint of Columbia's ambitious plan are gearing up for the fight of their lives.
It is David and Goliath all over again.

The trustees of Columbia, after all, are some of the biggest movers and shakers in New York. Bollinger is spending more money on lobbyists than Forest City Ratner spent to win approval of the Atlantic Yards project in Brooklyn.

Among those lobbyists is Bill Lynch, the former deputy mayor under David Dinkins. Columbia is paying Lynch's firm $40,000 per month to deliver the approval of City Council and gain more backing from Harlem leaders.

That won't be easy, even for a veteran political operative like Lynch.

Many in Harlem haven't forgotten Columbia's dark history of evicting thousands of low-income black and Hispanic tenants from Morningside Heights from the 1960s to the 1980s to make way for more student dormitories and new classroom and research buildings.

Those were the bad old days, say university officials. The new Columbia is enlightened and sensitive to the community.

"The university is committed to provide affordable housing, if not in that catchment area then nearby," Lynch told me yesterday. Lynch added that those who oppose the project haven't "offered any concrete proposals for negotiation,"

Next week, the city Planning Commission is expected to certify the Columbia redevelopment plan. That will officially start the clock on a legally-required land-use review process that will end later this year in a City Council vote.

By starting the 60-day clock for local review, the Bloomberg administration is ignoring the pleas of the local community board not to do so during the summer.

Most community boards have trouble making quorum during the vacation months of July and August. Even though city officials know that, they are moving forward with a review of both the Columbia plan and a competing plan from the community board.

It's a naked attempt to "slip a fast one by the community," said Jordi Reyes-Montblanc, chairman of Community Board 9.

"This fight will determine if low-income housing disappears in all of West Harlem," said Luis Tejada, director of the Mirabal Sisters Community Center, one of the neighborhood groups opposed to the Columbia plan.

Tejada's group is part of a wider Coalition to Preserve Community that is organizing a large Harlem tenants conference this weekend. He vowed that his group "will not even talk to Columbia until they take eminent domain off the table."

"Columbia has nothing but contempt for the community," Whitman said. "They think their way is the only way. When will they understand, my building's not for sale?"

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