Home > Orientation 2007
Welcome to the Neighborhood
By Erin Durkin
Issue date: 8/27/07 Section: Orientation 2007
There's more to Morningside Heights and West Harlem than Columbia's campus. Here are a few of the stories making news beyond the gates.Manhattanville ExpansionSince 2003, Columbia has been planning to build 17-acre campus in a section of West Harlem known as Manhattanville.Columbia says it is in dire need of the space. Its plans for the area include a neuroscience center and a new home for the business school. The University also says the plan will create jobs and revitalize a depressed area.
But the expansion has generated fierce opposition from some in the neighborhood, who say that, in addition to displacing all the homes and businesses in the expansion zone-from 125th to 133rd streets between Broadway and 12th Avenue-it will drive up rents and jeopardize affordable housing for miles around. An environmental impact study released this summer estimated that, by increasing rents, the plan could indirectly displace 3,293 people in the area immediately surrounding the expansion zone.
Columbia insists on owning all the property in the expansion footprint, and it already owns most of it. In one of the most controversial aspects of the plan, the state may use the power of eminent domain to forcibly acquire property from several business owners who have refused to sell and turn it over to Columbia. The state is currently conducting a study to determine if the area is underused or "blighted," a designation necessary for the use of eminent domain.
The local Community Board 9 has offered its own plan, known as 197-a, which would rule out eminent domain and allow manufacturing to continue in the area.
The expansion plan entered the public review process this summer. CB9 voted in August to reject the plan, but its vote is non-binding. In the coming months, the City Council will decide whether to allow Columbia to go forward.
Columbia is also negotiating a community benefits agreement with a board composed of local representatives, although divisions within the board may make it difficult to reach a consensus.
Affordable HousingIn recent years, affordable housing has become increasingly scarce in Morningside Heights and West Harlem. As the area becomes more desirable to new residents-a phenomenon called revitalization or gentrification, depending on whom you ask-rising prices make it difficult for long-time Harlem residents to pay the rent.
Dozens have been evicted from 3333 Broadway, the hulking complex on the corner of 133rd Street and Broadway, since the landlord opted out of the Mitchell-Lama affordable housing program in 2005, prompting dramatic increases in rents. The sale of the building to a developer early this summer has only increased tenants' uncertainty about their futures.
Elsewhere in West Harlem, tenants have accused a large landlord, the Pinnacle Group, of using intimidation and illegal evictions to get rent-regulated tenants out of their apartments so that they can be rented for the market price-charges that Pinnacle denies. Backed by elected officials, tenants this summer filed a lawsuit against Pinnacle, charging that its heavy-handed tactics amounted to racketeering.
Early this year, the city reopened the waiting list for section 8 housing vouchers for the first time in 12 years, but demand for the vouchers far exceeds the supply.
Labor DisputesOver the past year, many area establishments have faced accusations of paying their workers illegally low wages and forcing them to work in substandard conditions.
Last year, Spectator reported that some former employees of Milano Market accused the store of paying undocumented Mexican workers about $3.30 an hour and threatening them with deportation if they reported the conditions. Milano denied the charges.
Since then, several local restaurants have been accused of paying even lower wages. The minimum wage in New York State is $7.15.Employees filed a lawsuit against Ollie's-the Chinese food chain-in March, alleging that they worked 60-hour weeks for $1.40 an hour. They said they were fed barely edible scraps for their on-the-job meals. Ollie's managers said workers made at least minimum wage.
Further downtown, Saigon Grill has faced pickets from locked-out deliverymen and their supporters, who said that they were paid $1.60 an hour, had their tips confiscated, and were fined for offenses like taking sick days and slamming doors.
Local eateries Tomo Sushi and Columbia Cottage have also faced boycotts over allegations that they contract for supplies with a noted labor violator.
The population of Community District 9, which stretches from 110th to 155th streets, is 43 percent Latino. Yet on the local community board that represents the area, only five of 50 members identify as Latino.To remedy that situation, some Latino CB9 members have formed a caucus to conduct outreach to Latino residents in the neighborhood and to encourage them to apply to the board.
Heated discussions have erupted over the issue at CB9 meetings, and it prompted a confrontation last spring between members of the Mirabal Sisters, an advocacy group, and Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer, who appoints community board members.
The caucus has experienced a backlash from some board members, who say its efforts are divisive and that the board is not to blame if Latinos choose not to apply.