Thursday, August 16, 2007

CB9 Committee Votes Down Expansion Plan

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CB9 Committee Votes Down Expansion Plan
By Anna Phillips
Issue date: 8/16/07 Section: News

The members of Community Board 9's Urban Land Use Review Procedure voted Wednesday night to oppose Columbia University's West Harlem expansion plan unless certain requirements were met.

The resolution, passed five hours after the meeting began, laid the groundwork for further negotiations between the University and CB9 and cited specific conditions under which the board could come to accept the plan. The conditions-ten in total-range from insisting that Columbia take eminent domain off the table and withdraw the proposal for a seven-story bellow-grade structure, to provisions for affordable housing and promises that what is built will be done so as to minimize pollution and maximize sustainability."It's not a vote against [the plan]. It's a vote to negotiate," senior executive vice president Robert Kasdin said.

In his comments for the record, CB9 chair Jordi Reyes-Montblanc supported the idea that both sides would have to give on certain issues and compromise was desirable. "The community must get over its suspicion and dread of the Columbia expansion, and Columbia must overcome the feelings that they know better what is good for West Harlem and our people," he wrote.

The full board, whose vote is a nonbinding step in the city's Uniform Land Use Review Procedure, will vote on the plan on Monday.

But for many in attendance, the resolution was an afterthought to a long and chaotic evening.

Confusion began before the public comment period, when participants in a program called the Addicts Rehabilitation Center-run by Rev. Reginald Williams of the United Missionary Baptist Association-stood outside the community center, handing out leaflets supportive of Columbia. Few knew why they were there or what they were doing.

"I just came for some fresh air," said one ARC member who would not give her name. "I don't know why I'm here. What are we doing? Supporting the projects?"

When the public comment session did begin, over 50 people were not allowed to enter the Manhattanville Houses Community Center because the auditorium was at capacity and, by the time they did gain entrance, had missed speeches by University President Lee Bollinger and former New York City Mayor David Dinkins-both of whom voiced their support for the plan.

Dinkins, like many others who spoke in favor of the plan, was berated by a pocket of West Harlem community members-mostly members of the Mirabal Sisters Cultural and Community Center and the Coalition to Preserve Community-who shouted and booed at speakers while waving maracas.

Resident Mario Mazzoni, like many others, addressed Bollinger on a personal level. "If you're uncomfortable, I'm glad you're uncomfortable," he said. Others approached the microphone only to walk away seconds later, unable to make themselves heard over the din.

In total, 22 people spoke in favor of Columbia's plan, a larger turnout of support than the University has ever had at a community event.

Many of those who came to support the University's 197-c plan were members of the Coalition for the Future of Manhattanville, created by Bill Lynch Associates, a consulting firm that Columbia hired in April of 2006 to encourage more vocal support from people in West Harlem. A press release from the group lists 19 members, though Kevin Wardally, a consultant at Bill Lynch Associates, said more names would be released shortly.

"There's been a lot of miscommunication," Williams said. "People get hung up on eminent domain. If they [Columbia] haven't used it on 90 percent of the land, why would they used it on 10 percent?"

Another member of the new coalition, Hazel Dukes, the New York State Conference President of the NAACP, said that she believes the board's 197-a plan and Columbia's plan can be combined. "There's always room to negotiate," she said.

Despite this showing of support, opposition to the plan was overwhelming-73 people spoke against the plan's various elements and the disintegrating relationship between the University and the community.

"The expansion plan that Columbia has created makes me ashamed to say that I'm a Columbia student," Desiree Carver-Thomas, CC '09, said.

Other speakers voiced disapproval of the new coalition of supporters for Columbia's plan.

"I really do think it's a travesty that Columbia should have bused in people here-people who have not been involved-to be a part of a dialogue about the future of our community," said Cecil Corbin-Mark, of West Harlem Environmental Action.

CB9 member Vicky Gholson admonished both sides for their behavior. Those against Columbia's plan, she said, were being disrespectful. And to Columbia: "I don't think you understand just how angry this community is," she said.

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