Saturday, November 03, 2007

Perkins' One Man Show: Now Nearly Alone Among Politicians, Senator Stands Against CU

Perkins' One Man Show: Now Nearly Alone Among Politicians, Senator Stands Against CU
By Melissa Repko

As Columbia’s expansion plan for Manhattanville works its way through the public review process, State Senator Bill Perkins, D-West Harlem, is finding himself nearly alone among politicians as many fall in line with the University.

Perkins, who was city councilman for eight years before being elected senator, has spoken out against Columbia’s proposal to rezone and build a new campus over 17 acres of Manhattanville and has insisted that Columbia take eminent domain off the table.

Ever since Columbia announced its intentions to build a new campus in Manhattanville, a primarily industrial district, many neighborhood residents have expressed anger towards the University. Many argue that the campus would increase the area’s cost of living and drive current residents out of the neighborhood, along with those who would be directly displaced to form a contiguous campus. As part of the Uniform Land Use Review Procedure, Community Board 9 overwhelmingly voted down Columbia’s plan in August with only one approval vote and two abstentions. The board also set out 10 conditions Columbia must meet for its approval, ranging from affordable-housing provisions to eliminating the “bathtub,” a below-grade structure for truck deliveries and energy facilities.

“There’s no question that the Manhattanville area is right for development, particularly development that speaks to the need of the people in the community,” Perkins said, adding that the plan must protect affordable housing and improve environmental standards.

Although he insists that a partnership between Manhattanville, a community with many needs, and Columbia, an institution with plentiful resources, could be mutually beneficial, he said the current proposal reminds him of Columbia’s highly controversial plan to build a gym in Morningside Park in the 1960s, which the community eventually prevented.

Even after Community Board 9’s vote to reject the expansion plan, many politicians have become increasingly sympathetic to Columbia’s point of view. At the CB9 meeting where the vote took place, Tom DeMott of the Coalition to Preserve Community noted that Councilman Robert Jackson, D-Harlem, was “eerily silent” and Councilwoman Inez Dickens, D-Central Harlem, had “not said essentially a word.”

Little has changed, and a monthly board meeting rarely passes by without a political representative being questioned on whether he or she approves or opposes Columbia’s expansion plan.

For board members like Michael Palma, it is a refreshing change to hear someone like Perkins. “He is really the only politician to be sticking out his neck and taking a clear position on the issue,” Palma said.

Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer has come out in support of Columbia’s expansion plan and announced his vote in favor of the University’s rezoning application in late September.
His vote hinged on an agreement with Columbia to provide millions of dollars for affordable housing and parks. His statement of support for Columbia, especially after he pledged to strengthen the role of community boards in his campaign platform, was seen as a betrayal by many CB9 members. The feeling of being “sold out” incited Coalition to Preserve Community leader Tom DeMott to distribute a cartoon portraying Stringer as University President Lee Bollinger’s lapdog.

Jackson has not announced how he will vote when Columbia’s ULURP application reaches the City Council. At a public hearing before Stringer’s vote, Jackson said he was present to listen, not offer his own opinion. He appeared at the press conference where Stringer announced his agreement with Columbia, offering his support for the borough president’s deal, and has been quoted in several University press releases.

Though not as polarizing, politicians who have been unclear about their views have also drawn fire from CB9 members who feel that time is running out and political support is necessary.
Palma said that he thinks Jackson and others are “sitting on the fence” and taking the “wait and see” approach, so they detract attention. “I think quietly they support the plan but do not want to take a position on it because of the community position,” he said.

But for Bollinger, politicians and community members are simply quieting down and changing their tune because they realize the project’s value. “I cannot imagine that this project will not receive widespread acceptance and embrace ... The more people look at it ... the more they realize that it’s true,” Bollinger said, later adding that “people are agreeing with this because of the merits, and that’s what’s most satisfying and what I hope is best.”

Although Bollinger said he believes that only “a small minority” will end up opposing the plan, Perkins has gained a lot of support among community members who feel he is perfectly representing the anti-expansion views of the neighborhood.

CB9 Chairman Jordi Reyes-Montblanc called Perkins “a gentleman, a scholar, and an independent man” and said that his way of making decisions contrasts greatly with other politicians who are swept whichever way the political winds blow.

More recently, Perkins has continued his insistence that residents who would be displaced by the plan be allowed to negotiate directly with Columbia, rather than having Columbia and the city work out their own deals.

On the West Harlem Local Development Corporation, the body that is negotiating a community-benefits agreement with Columbia, representatives of local officials have generally voted in lockstep—with only Perkins dissenting. He was the only elected official to vote against a motion to remove local business owner Nick Sprayregen from the board, which failed due to opposition from community representatives on the board.

Perkins has also been firm in his opposition to the use of eminent domain to acquire property for Columbia’s expansion. “Their [Columbia administrators’] idea of using eminent domain is not bargaining and good faith, in fact it’s more like a mugging,” he said. “It’s intimidation. It’s the same thing as me putting a gun to your head and saying ‘Can I have a dollar?’ You’re not negotiating. You’re not standing on the merits. You’re standing on power. You’re standing on bully tactics.”

He also said that while eminent domain “can potentially be a tool that is useful ... it’s always being used by the big guy to take the property of the little guy.”

Perkins said he is surprised that many city politicians remain silent, especially since Columbia has “a long history of these conflicts with the community.” About two or three years ago, Columbia fought with the community over the proposed location for the School of Social Work building. Perkins said that it took a strong sense of community to eventually force Columbia to change its proposed location. He said that “has been their modus operandi for years and years and years.”

Though Perkins has taken a different tack from other elected officials, he says it was not a difficult decision. “I’m representing what I hear to be the will of the community,” he said. “You know as well as I that there is outrage, resounding outrage on the part of the residents of the community. Very rarely have you seen such unanimous outpouring and the community board vote underscored that in their official way ... I think that I am in tune with the interests of these people in the neighborhood.”
Melissa Repko can be reached at


View Comments ( 2)Post a Comment

As Perkins says: “I’m representing what I hear to be the will of the community."
The will of the community being: Keep white people out.
And we thought racism was on the decline...
Posted by: anonymous (not verified) November 2nd, 2007 @ 10:01am

At least now I know never to vote for Perkins
Posted by: anonymous (not verified) November 2nd, 2007 @ 9:46am

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