To: "Jordi Reyes-Montblanc"
Subject: From today's Post
Date: Wed, 19 Sep 2007 13:16:28 -0400
September 19, 2007 -- COLUMBIA University is making great efforts to pre vent community objections from derailing its plan for a massive expansion in West Harlem. But its methods seem to rely more on big-money power politics than on listening to the folks who live and work where the school wants to build.
At a meeting held last month by West Harlem's Community Board 9, for example, a good chunk of the school's "local supporters" looked to be patients from an East Harlem drug-rehab clinic.
Several people were outside handing out pamphlets castigating area business owner Nick Sprayregen, the expansion's most vocal critic. Visnja Vujica - a recent Barnard grad and member of the anti-expansion Student Coalition on Expansion & Gentrification - says she discovered that the pamphleteers were patients from East Harlem's Addicts Rehabilitation Center (ARC).
"I talked to one man, J.R., I think, who was wearing one of the 'Future of Manhattanville' stickers. He said he was paid; wouldn't tell how much, but said something like, When you're given pretty much a blank check, you don't ask questions," she said.
Vujica explained that "J.R." told her that the money came "through Rev. Williams." Rev. Reggie Williams, a pastor with the United Missionary Baptist Association, does indeed run ARC - but he adamantly denies that money is involved with his pro-Columbia efforts, calling such charges "misinformation or disrespectful lies at best - we have not received any money."
Williams instead says: "This expansion would bring about real change that we think would be beneficial."
Of course, ARC exists largely off state funds. It would likely wither away without the goodwill of Harlem's political establishment. And Columbia has obtained the support of much of the Harlem machine.
Former Mayor David Dinkins, now a professor of public affairs at Columbia, spoke in favor of the expansion at the hearing, as did a host of other Harlem black leaders.
Dinkins wasn't a hit with the crowd - they booed him. Former NAACP National Director Hazel Dukes fared little better.
"Bringing David Dinkins to that meeting shows how out of touch [Columbia President] Lee Bollinger is with our community," said Carolyn Birden, a resident of 110th Street since 1976. "Ten minutes of research could have told him that."
Before the rancorous over-capacity hearing closed, a board committee voted against the expansion 17-1. But Columbia doesn't need the community board's OK - only the approval of the City Planning Commission.
And to show local support to the commission, Columbia will point to the Community Benefits Agreement it's now negotiating.
These accords are a fairly new feature of New York development controversies. Basically, the developer agrees to a series of handouts to help the surrounding neighborhood, and to show that he's not ignoring the locals' needs. Such deals have cleared the way for big projects like the new Yankee Stadium.
To negotiate with Columbia, the City Planning Commission and Community Board 9 set up the West Harlem Local Development Corp. (LDC) last summer, with 13 members from the West Harlem area. But at one early meeting, Rep. Charles Rangel (D-Harlem) showed up and, according to several LDC members, demanded a seat at the table.
Nine seats, actually: The board now includes Rangel and eight other politicians he brought in - two state senators, three assemblymen, Borough President Scott Stringer and two city councilmen.
The LDC's bylaws had actually prohibited involvement by elected officials until next year. But none of the neighborhood leaders were willing to challenge the express wishes of a city (and national) political powerhouse like Rangel.
Critics claim that most of these politicians are in Columbia's pocket. Campaign-finance records show that at least three Columbia administrators (who also serve the university as paid lobbyists) have made multiple donations to Rangel's campaigns.
The politicians generally vote in lockstep. On a recent effort to expel Columbia critic Sprayregen from the board, only state Sen. Bill Perkins (D-Harlem) declined to go along with the other officeholders. The measure failed to gain the supermajority it needed to pass - but did pull 12 votes, suggesting that the elected officials will control the shape of the deal.
Several LDC members say that Rangel recently hosted officials from Columbia, his fellow LDC politician reps and executives from a Harlem housing non-profit to discuss a housing strategy for the CBA. In a letter to the board at large, several members complained: "This action smacks of an end-run around the LDC's negotiation strategy and its very legitimacy."
In other words, Columbia is going to pay to get its expansion - but it's not clear that the people who will feel the projects impact will see much of the benefit.
Tom Elliott is a member of The Post's editorial board. firstname.lastname@example.org