Residents, community groups decry Columbia expansion plan
By RICHARD PYLE Associated Press Writer
4:23 PM EDT, August 1, 2007
NEW YORK - Cramped by its urban surroundings, Columbia University is seeking to expand into Harlem against a backdrop of protests from residents who say the Ivy League school's ambitious project would destroy their working-class, minority neighborhood.
The plan is the latest chapter in the sometime-stormy relationship between the neighborhood and elite campus _ which erupted most dramatically in the riots of 1968. Columbia's $7 billion plan calls for the construction of new buildings for the arts, business and science, as well as a public high school, on 17 acres north of the campus. To construct the expansion, most of the neighborhood's buildings _ a mix of apartments, warehouses, auto repair shops and small factories _ would have to be razed.
Opponents say the university is being insensitive to the history of the community, and that its project would displace poor, minority families who have long struggled to earn a living there. "Columbia's proposal is an all-or-nothing plan that would mean the essential devastation of our community," said Tom DeMott, spokesman for the Coalition to Preserve Community.
The project echoes another expansion dispute in 1968, when riots erupted over Columbia's plans to build a gymnasium in a public park. The university's proposal to build separate entrances for students and the public struck some in that racially charged era as discriminatory, and the gym was never built.
School president Lee Bollinger, who arrived at Columbia as a law student in 1968, said the climate is far different today than it was in that tumultuous era _ and insists the project won't ruin the neighborhood. "We're all aware of how the battles of that era hurt both our urban neighborhoods and great universities like this one. Forty years later this is a very different city and a very different Columbia," he said.
Columbia officials call their project essential if Columbia is to remain competitive with other top universities. It currently has half the space of Harvard University and a third that of Princeton and Yale. The proposed expansion _ with a first phase to be completed by 2015, and the second by 2030 _ would nearly double the size of the Morningside Heights campus the university has occupied since 1897.
The opposition to Columbia's expansion isn't unique _ but other campuses have shown such tension can be eased.
In Connecticut, Yale University's effort to mend relations between the campus and community has been a model. The Ivy League university traditionally was perceived by some as an elitist institution that did not want to be a part of the community, while its property tax exemption contributed to tensions.
The university started a program to help university employees buy homes in neighborhoods near the campus, and Yale bought and restored blighted buildings in two central shopping districts.
Yale now owns dozens of storefronts and is New Haven's largest retail landlord. Columbia already owns two-thirds of the properties in the former manufacturing area of west Harlem, known as Manhattanville, and is seeking to acquire the rest.
Columbia already has defused one of the more rancorous aspects of the plan by saying that it would not invoke eminent domain law to evict residents of 132 apartments in seven walkup buildings.
The university has also said it will help tenants find equal or better housing and will assist with moving costs.
That move was welcomed by the area's city councilman, Robert Jackson, who said, "No potential problem has been more threatening for the residents of west Harlem than the use of eminent domain."
The university has not, however, ruled out using eminent domain to acquire several commercial sites within the 17-acre parcel. It has been negotiating with individual property owners to acquire the land, with mixed results.
Warehouse operator Nick Sprayregen, whose neat brick warehouse is draped with a large banner reading "Eminent Domain Abuse," vowed to fight the expansion in court if necessary.
"This is a really nothing more than a land grab of the most extreme type. They want every last square foot of space to build a beautiful campus. There's no reason they need all of it," Sprayregen said.
Before it can begin construction, Columbia has to go before various city boards to get the 17-acre land parcel rezoned _ a complicated process that began in June and is expected to take seven months.
NEW YORK - Since the city's own economic development corporation has recommended developing Manhattanville, some see the Columbia plan as all but inevitable. It also has the backing of influential black leaders, including ex-mayor David Dinkins, state NAACP president Hazel N. Dukes and pastors of area Baptist churches.
The local community board says it wants Columbia to create jobs for neighborhood residents, preserve historical buildings and maintain the architectural scale of the neighborhood. They also want to make sure that low-income residents are not displaced. The area has a median income of $29,000, about three-fourths that of the city at large, and 18 percent unemployment, double the city's overall rate.
Columbia vice president David Stone said the project will create 6,000 jobs in the neighborhood, but acknowledged that the university's plans can't be easily reconciled with the goals of the community board. "They're apples and oranges," he said. "The community board's proposal is broadly aspirational, whereas Columbia is presenting a specific long-term plan for the area."
The school has already successfully negotiated with some small business owners in the expansion area, including Dinosaur Bar-B-Que. The popular restaurant and sports bar has an understanding that Columbia will move it to a new location "when the time comes," said owner John Stage. "We're integrated into the plan. They've been very good to us up to this point," Stage said.
But around the block, 38-year-old Tony Garcia bemoans the forced closing of his auto paint shop, which he said will put himself and about 20 other people out of work. "Fourteen years at this place, I'm not ready to go," Garcia said. "The paper says Columbia helps people. I don't know what people they help."