Noisy neighbors wrong to shout down progress
Thursday, August 30th 2007, 4:00 AM
The biggest obstacle to Columbia University's planned $7 billion expansion into West Harlem - a problem that could hobble other worthy, ambitious development plans - is New York's cumbersome, outdated land-use procedures, which reward obstructionists, polarize communities and add years of needless, expensive delay to large-scale projects.
New York can do better.
We have to.
Columbia wants to relocate its business school to Harlem and build a research center, dormitories and green space in a 17-acre area north of 125th St. and west of Broadway.
The shortcomings of the current scheme for public input on such plans were on display at a recent Community Board 9 meeting, where a deafening chorus of chants and boos were hurled at Columbia President Lee Bollinger and ex-Mayor David Dinkins as they made brief statements in support of the expansion proposal.
The ruckus, which was videotaped and proudly posted on YouTube, is a great example of how not to plan New York's next quarter-century of development.
In theory, our city's land-use procedures - a slow trip through the local community board, the borough president's office and the City Council, with public hearings and advisory votes at each step along the way - is supposed to give neighborhoods maximum input into development plans.
That's the theory. In practice, putting development projects through the wringer of local politics, with its endless bickering, gives enormous power to those who want to stop a project cold.
The usual obstructionist tactic is what I call the Gulliver Gambit: pretending to support progress, but only if the developer agrees to attach a thousand tiny strings to a big project.
The real motive of the strategy is to tie down a project and run development costs through the roof until a killing blow can be landed in the form of an adverse court ruling or elections that bring new government players into the mix.
We're seeing hints of that in West Harlem, where Community Board 9 says it favors negotiation with Columbia - but only if 10 "nonnegotiable" demands are met first.
Another favorite anti-development strategy is to cry foul over the makeup of whatever group tries to actually strike a bargain.
This week, six board members of the West Harlem Local Development Corp. - a group created more than a year ago for the purpose of negotiating a community-benefits agreement with Columbia - began circulating a letter castigating Harlem Congressman Charlie Rangel for convening a meeting of LDC members and local officials to talk about ways to include subsidized housing in the Columbia plan.
Such complaints are a distraction from the real deal-making that needs to take place. In particular, there's a proposal by Harlem businessman Nick Sprayregen that deserves more attention: The deal would swap Sprayregen's businesses on the west side of Broadway for Columbia's property on the east side of the street, where Sprayregen would build up to 1,000 units of subsidized housing.
Whatever the outcome of such bargaining, New York is long overdue for a new set of land-use regulations. Recent innovations, like the creation of formal community-benefits agreements - negotiated with help from neutral, professional arbitrators and urban planners - should be written into law. And technological support, including Web sites with room for public comments on big projects, should be a given.
Above all, we need to do away with holding late-night shout-fests to figure out how to build our city.
NB - Mr. Louis you are WRONG! The biggest obstacle to Columbia's expansion is, believe or not is none other than Columbia University itself.
The University has held literally hundreds of meetings with the community. In every one of those meetings the community expressed their concerns, some ridiculous, some outrageous but most very valid and vital to the residents of Manhattanville and the rest of WestSide Harlem.
What you refer as obstructionism is in fact obstructionism but the creators of the obstructions are not the community but Columbia University's hubris is believing that their plan must be accepted 100% or not at all, "all or nothing" as President Bollinger has said repeatedly.
When you speak of polarization I am a total loss, How can be community of West Harlem be polarized when they are 100% supportive of the CB9M's 197-a Plan which they helped craft through many years and all the community has been asking is for Columbia, who also participated in the crafting of the CB9M 197-a Plan, aligns it's 197-c plan with the designs and desires of the community planning?
The only polarization is with those individuals outside of WestSide Harlem most not even residents of Greater Harlem at all or only recent arrivals who Columbia has aligned in their support.
The display of the community at the Public Hearing was shameful, but when you place in the context of Columbia's outsourcing support from drug rehab individuals from East Harlem and downtown and the presence of hard-hat union members in a rather intimidating pose you understand that the frustrations of the community were expressed, loudly, impolitely and blistering. And Mr. Louis need I remind you of the First Amendment?
However different from Columbia University episode with Jim Gilchrist several months ago, Neither mayor Dinkins nor President Bollinger were physically assaulted and in fact were able to deliver their speeches, which Mr. Gilchrist never did at Columbia.
You say that posting the video of the booing of Mr. Dinkins and Mr. Bollinger is an example of how not to plan New York next quarter of a century development - you again right! However, the lack of responsiveness of Columbia to the community's concerns is the perfect example of how not do any long term planning that will affect a community for the next 30 years.
Obviously you are unaware of the history of abandonment and outright dereliction of West Harlem for many years, an area that only a few years ago Congressman Rangel himself defined as "no man's land". Well this is no longer a "no man's land" it belongs to a community strongly united behind the idea that the CB9M 197-a Plan is the best way for Columbia to grow and be welcomed as the good neighbor Columbia can be.
And finally I do agree that the laws should be updated and the role of Community Board made stronger and that by law Community Board be properly funded to deal with multi-billion dollars development projects and that ULURPs should not be scheduled during the Summer hiatus months. - JRM