Back in the 1960s, David Dinkins was picketing Columbia University. Then a community activist, the former mayor was one of the most outspoken opponents of the university’s plan to evict thousands of low-income black and Hispanic tenants from Morningside Heights in an effort to make room for more housing and academic space.
He and Basil Paterson (D), the former state senator, deputy mayor and secretary of state, walked arm in arm in solidarity against the school’s plans.
Over the past two months, Dinkins has been making the rounds in support of the university’s proposed expansion into Manhattanville—the first phase of a potentially larger expansion into Harlem—which has included backing the proposal to use eminent domain to take public land for private use by the university.
And that has left several of the area’s elected officials wishing they could turn back the clock.
Although few disagree that the area needs to be revitalized—Hazel Dukes of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) leant her support to the proposed project in early July—there is near consensus against the lengths to which the former mayor has said Columbia should be allowed to go.
“With all due respect to the mayor,” said State Sen. Bill Perkins (D-Manhattan), “I don’t think that eminent domain and a carte blanche opportunity for Columbia University is the appropriate way to go.”
While in office, from 1990 to 1993, Dinkins tried to implement a business growth plan in West Harlem. By his admission, it failed.
Shortly after leaving office, he became a professor at Columbia’s School of International and Public Affairs. He sits on the school’s board of advisors, teaches a course called “Critical Issues in Urban Public Policy” and hosts the school’s annual David N. Dinkins Leadership and Public Policy Forum.
Council Member Robert Jackson (D-Manhattan), who represents part of the area, disagrees strongly with Dinkins on the Columbia expansion.
Jackson sits on the Council’s Land Use and Zoning and Franchise Committees, which puts him front and center in the deliberations over whether to approve or disapprove the proposed rezoning.
Officials say that a deal needs to be hammered out among the university, the city and the constituents in the area. In June, after a two-week delay requested by the City Council, the Department of City Planning published the university’s application to change zoning in the area. Now begins the seven-month uniform land use review procedure, commonly known as ULURP.
Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer (D) said that his office is organizing a public hearing about the review for after the Labor Day holiday. Stringer said that now that Dinkins has made his views known, he wishes to create a forum in which all opinions can be expressed and discussed.
“Mayor Dinkins’ support of the Columbia University expansion is a very powerful endorsement, considering his history within the community and understanding of the governmental process,” he said. “What is important is that all leaders begin to have a discussion. I welcome everybody’s opinion in this discussion.”
Changes not covered under the rezoning application, such as the businesses owned by people so far unwilling to sell to the university—including two moving companies, a storage provider and a gas station—may be acquired through the use of eminent domain. The university announced it will not use eminent domain to acquire residential properties.
Jordi Reyes-Montblanc, chair of the local community board, said that he respected Dinkins and was disappointed, but not surprised, by Dinkins’ support of the plan.“I would not expect him to not support the institution that he works for,” he said. “Of course, I wish he would have opted to come out for the community, but he opted to go with Columbia.”
The community board is reviewing two different proposals: Columbia’s, which relies on eminent domain, and the board-sponsored plan, which does not. Reyes-Montblanc said that more than 300 people attended a public meeting in early July to look at the board’s plan, and that he heard no dissent. Another public meeting to review Columbia’s plan is scheduled for Aug. 15.
After the board, Stringer and the City Planning Commission review the plan, they will make recommendations. The City Council then has the final vote.
But city agencies do not have a final say in whether Columbia may use eminent domain. The members of the Public Authorities Control Board, appointed by Gov. Eliot Spitzer (D), Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver (D-Manhattan) and Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno (R-Rensselaer) will.
Council Member Inez Dickens (D-Manhattan) said she hopes one day to see the revitalization of the neighborhood. According to the most recent available City Council records from late 2005, Dickens continues to draw a salary as president of her family’s real estate company in Harlem. She owns four buildings in that area.
Dickens declined to comment further for this article. But when asked about Dinkins’ endorsement of eminent domain, days after Dinkins first publicly endorsed Columbia’s plan, she said that she did not believe Dinkins could endorse such an idea without first having many questions answered.
“I have questions,” she said. “Council Member Jackson has questions. Congressman Rangel has questions. I think we all recognize that this particular area of Harlem is devastated, but what does that mean to the people who reside there and have businesses there?”
Rangel was unavailable for comment.
When it comes down to who decides after all the questions have been answered, Jackson said the power belongs to those who hold office.
“Here all of the elected local and state elected officials are opposed to eminent domain, and here our esteemed mayor is in support,” Jackson said. “What does that tell you? We respect him, but he is out of office, and we are in.”
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