Sunday, August 19, 2007

Columbia runs into a bulldozer of a community

Albor Ruiz

Columbia runs into a bulldozer of a community
Sunday, August 19th 2007, 4:00 AM

It will not determine the future of Columbia University's plan to expand its campus into Manhattanville, but the vote at Community Board 9 on Wednesday - 17 against, 1 in favor - left little doubt about how the community feels.

But as community board leaders and university representatives said after the five-hour-long public meeting, the lopsided vote does not mean the community is completely turning its back on Columbia's ambitious 17-acre, $5.8 billion, 25-year plan.

It was more "a vote to negotiate," as Robert Kasdin, Columbia's senior executive vice president, told The Columbia Daily Spectator.

Jordi Reyes-Montblanc, who has been the chairman of Community Board 9 since 2004, puts it another way.

"Columbia expected a 'conditional yes' vote," he said. "They were stunned that, instead it was a 17-1 vote for a 'conditional no.'"

That is, the board - which has its own plan for Harlem's Manhattanville area - did leave the door open for negotiation - but only if Columbia agrees to conditions such as building low-income housing and taking measures to protect the environment.

"What we are looking for is for Columbia to couple its plan with that of the community," said Reyes-Montblanc, who remains optimistic about reaching an agreement with the university.

On Monday, the full board will hold a special vote, and another lopsided victory for a "conditional no" to Columbia's wishes is expected. Even though the board's vote is nonbinding, it will another powerful indication of where the community stands.

Columbia says that the 25-year expansion plan will generate 6,000 university jobs and some 1,200 construction jobs - but many people in the community are not so sure.

There is a degree of mistrust that can be traced to 1968, when in another expansion plan Columbia attempted to erect a gymnasium in a public park. The project was taken to have racist overtones by the people of Harlem and, as a result, riots ensued. The university decided not to build it.

Fortunately, this time things have not reached the boiling point, and the university has taken a number of steps to try to win over the people of Harlem.

One of them was the school's reassurance to the community that it will not ask the state to use eminent domain to displace people from their homes, although it may do it in the case of the businesses that remain in the expansion area.

"We are absolutely committed to ensuring that these community members will have equal or better affordable housing in the area, and we are working to achieve this result," Kasdin has said.

NEVERTHELESS, the fear that the elite school's expansion will mean the end of this working-class, racially and culturally diverse neighborhood, is pervasive. Rising rents already have displaced many people.

"And the Columbia expansion has made it even worse," Reyes-Montblanc said.

The fact that Columbia failed to involve the community in its expansion plan from the beginning has been a major sticking point.

"They think they know better than us what is good for the community," Reyes-Montblanc said.

"Their attitude is, 'What is good for Columbia is good for humanity,' which in their mind justifies pushing people around."

Despite the harsh words, there is plenty of room for negotiation.

"You know," Reyes-Montblanc confides, "it's true that they do good things for humanity. But they just cannot do them at the expense of the people of Harlem."

Albor Ruiz
Albor Ruiz has been a columnist for the Daily News since 1997, but joined the paper in 1993 as the first Latino member of its Editorial Board. Ruiz was also the editor-in-chief of El Daily News, the first bilingual newspaper in the country. Throughout his career, Ruiz has never lost sight of the struggles of Latino immigrants. Whether writing for English- or Spanish-language media, Ruiz' journalistic mission has been to provide a voice for those whose stories often go untold by the mainstream media.

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