By Daniel Amzallag
PUBLISHED NOVEMBER 30, 2007
Members and supporters of the Coalition to Preserve Community rallied at City Hall Thursday to protest practices of the West Harlem Local Development Corporation regarding Columbia’s proposed expansion into Manhattanville.
The press conference followed the resignations of Tom DeMott, CC ’80, Luisa Henriques, and Nick Sprayregen from the LDC, a nonprofit organization created to develop a community benefits agreement with Columbia regarding the expansion.
DeMott and Sprayregen criticized what they described as secrecy in the LDC’s dealings. LDC Board members are unable to report what occurs in closed negotiation sessions as part of a “gag order,” DeMott said. “Unfortunately, side deals are happening all over the place, and many members of committees aren’t even aware about the negotiating that’s going on,” said Cynthia Doty, a member of the Coalition to Preserve Community.
But LDC member Maritta Dunn argued that negotiations necessitate closed meetings. “Inside the LDC, information has always been shared, so I don’t know what more anyone can ask for.
“The WHLDC has held open forums, convened public sessions of its weekly general meetings and included many community members in its working groups to ensure that the public is kept informed and community feedback is obtained,” said a LDC statement released on Thursday.
Nearly all the rally’s speakers condemned Columbia’s threat to use eminent domain, which Dunn said “the community in total has been against.”
“At a minimum the City Council should say to Columbia, ‘Your current plan will be rejected unless you tell us at a minimum no eminent domain,” said Norman Siegel, a civil rights attorney representing businesses in the expansion footprint. “No business, no resident should ever be displaced in order to vie the property to a private entity.”
“It’s an absolute disgrace that we are abusing the eminent domain process, which is supposed to be to take people’s property under the very best of reasons,” City Council Member Tony Avella, D-Queens, said after the press conference. “But to take it to give to a developer to make millions upon millions of dollars is unconscionable, unconstitutional, and disgraceful.”
The University has said that it hopes to accomplish its expansion without the use of eminent domain, but is unwilling to take it off the table.
Speakers at the rally emphasized their dismay with local elected officials, a grievance which DeMott and Sprayregen have cited as a reason for their resignations. “What was started as a board strictly of members of the community was transformed into one that included representatives from every politician that could get their hands into it,” said Sprayregen, who is second largest private property owner in the expansion footprint after Columbia. “The political representatives have effectively co-opted the board.”
Elected officials currently make up nine out of 28 members of the LDC.
“We’ve assured them [local elected officials] that they will not be able to dodge this issue—it will stick to them like Teflon,” Nellie Bailey, president of the Harlem Tenants Council, said. “They will become the Columbia University Teflon kings and queens of this expansion.”
But local politicians on the LDC are necessary to enforce its ultimate decision, Dunn said. “The politicians that are on the LDC are the politicians elected by the local community. We elected them to represent us—they didn’t come from outer space,” she said. “Most of the politicians have been reelected several terms, and if they’re new it’s because of term limits, not because of poor performance.”
Dan Amzallag can be reached at email@example.com.