Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Activists Vow to Continue Fight Against University Expansion

Activists Vow to Continue Fight Against University Expansion
By Mary Kohlmann

Despite the blow that the New York City Council’s approval of Columbia’s rezoning plan represents for those who challenge the University, activists have not given up hope.

Many members of Coalition to Preserve Community, an activist group that opposes the University’s expansion plan, and Columbia’s Student Coalition on Expansion and Gentrification view the decision as a mere roadblock, and are developing strategies for everything from political action to physical opposition.

“That approval is maybe celebrated in Low Library, but it is a completely illusory victory,” CPC member Tom Kappner, CC ’66, said.

In the past, the two groups have held protests and teach-ins. Over the coming months, they plan to inform the community further about the project and hope to influence the upcoming state review of Columbia’s plans. The state has the power to use eminent domain to transfer private commercial properties to Columbia.

“We have a two-pronged approach,” CPC leader Tom DeMott, CC ’80, said. “One is to keep informing the local community about the situation now that Columbia has gotten the plan approved. Two is to get that message out to the Columbia community.”SCEG member Victoria Ruiz, CC ’09, said there would be petitioning, busing to meetings, and protests.

Plans are also being considered to obstruct the construction physically. “We’ve all said that we’ll stand outside in front of the bulldozers,” DeMott said.

Other possible tactics are financial. CPC members have suggested contacting potential donors to the expansion and discouraging their participation. “Many Columbia alumni, thank God, see that this is not what they want their University to be,” Kappner said.

Columbia Senior Executive Vice President Robert Kasdin disagreed, citing the University’s “deep ties” with the local community. “To the contrary,” he said, “University alumni are excited at the opportunities Manhattanville makes available for generations to come.

“There is widespread support for Columbia’s initiative as evidenced by the strong support of elected officials of Harlem and Washington Heights,” Kasdin added.

Most organizers do not consider formal discussion with the University useful. In November 2007, students on a hunger strike demanded that the University revoke its 197-c plan, but, upon meeting with administrators involved with the expansion, complained that they dismissed concerns.

Ruiz, who was one of the hunger strikers, said that meetings with administrators are only “symbolic. ... They don’t really result in meaningful information for either side.”

Activists are dissatisfied with their elected officials who supported the expansion. “Personally, I think that Robert Jackson and Scott Stringer—they’re finished in this community,” Kappner said. “If they stood for election today they wouldn’t have the votes to stay in office.”

But the frustration with local elected officials is not unanimous in the community, and in the wake of the 197-c vote, running for office on an anti-expansion platform is not constructive, as former CB9 chair Jordi Reyes-Montblanc pointed out.

“The trouble is, it’s done, it’s finished,” he said. “I don’t like to waste my time on things that are finished.” Reyes-Montblanc has said he will run for City Council in 2009 for District 7, which comprises Manhattanville and Hamilton Heights.

Activists against Columbia’s plan have singled out New York State senator Bill Perkins as one of the only elected officials who supports them.

“I appreciate their opposition to the project,” Perkins said of the CPC, “And I have to have some conversations with them before I can say exactly how we’ll be involved. We support the cause.”
CB9 chair Pat Jones distinguished the board’s position from that of CPC, adding, “We can be supportive of ensuring that community members are safe and that their needs are met.”

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Negotiations force Columbia to increase bid


Negotiations force Columbia to increase bid
To win support for expansion from West Harlem community, university coughs up extra $50M

Raymond Carlson
Staff Reporter
Published Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Before Columbia University could break new ground on its planned expansion in West Harlem, the university had to meet the needs of the local community — to the tune of $150 million.
Prior to receiving the City Council’s approval for its expansion on Dec. 19, Columbia had to increase its initial monetary offer for the community-benefits package fivefold, from $30 million to $150 million, the News has learned. Negotiating the final figure required many months of dialogue between the university and community leaders in the West Harlem Local Development Corporation — but a decision to add the last $50 million of the buyout was made in only one night.

The ultimate $150-million sum — part of a community-benefit agreement — was settled on the night of Dec. 18, the day before the City Council was set to vote on the zoning proposal, which was seen as a go-ahead for Columbia’s expansion project. Going into negotiations that evening, the university had offered only $100 million. But after working with Columbia President Lee Bollinger and Senior Executive Vice President Robert Casden, community members bargained that number up to $150 million.

Citing the ongoing nature of the negotiations — which were confirmed by several city officials and university affiliates — Columbia officials declined to comment.

In a saga that may foreshadow Yale’s own expansion efforts down the road, Columbia has been pushing since 2003 for the construction of a 17-acre expansion in a part of West Harlem known as Manhattanville, just a few blocks from its main campus in Morningside Heights. Prior to receiving approval from the City Council, the university focused on winning support from members of the local community.

Locals, brought up in a history of frosty relations with the university, initially resisted the plan.

Columbia’s expansion would displace some residents, and there were concerns that it would completely change the makeup of the neighborhood, explained Susan Russell, chief of staff for City Council Member Robert Jackson, who represents most of the area into which Columbia plans to expand.

“The atmosphere around this possible development wasn’t a good one — the community was incensed about it,” she said.

Over time, local residents warmed to the expansion plan, thanks to efforts by the university to engage in dialogue with the community, said Warren Whitlock, Columbia’s director of construction coordination.

Still, the community’s local government representatives in Community Board 9 — which includes Morningside Heights, Manhattanville and Hamilton Heights — had to claim an active role in the negotiations to ensure their constituents’ views were heard.

In order to increase direct communication between the community and Columbia, in the summer of 2005 the board passed a resolution creating a local development corporation, the LDC. The LDC was incorporated in either April or May of 2006, Russell said.

Because the corporation — which has 28 seats — includes nine locally elected officials, including members of Community Board 9, the corporation became the key link between the local community and Columbia throughout the expansion process.

“A community board is not empowered to negotiate,” said Sarah Morgridge, Jackson’s executive assistant. “The successor community voice was the West Harlem Local Development Corporation.”

Over the ensuing months, the LDC focused on a wide array of issues important to local residents — committees were formed to speak up for community members on transportation, the environment, housing and other issues surrounding the expansion.

One of the most important functions of the board was to negotiate the sum of money to be provided to the community through the community-benefit agreement.

Council member Jackson worked tirelessly to ensure that local residents were happy with the plan, and the LDC proved a key connection between the community and the university, Russell said.

Theodore Kovaleff, a former dean of Columbia Law School and former six-time chair of the LDC, said he believed New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and City Council Speaker Christine Quinn said the Council needed to vote on the expansion by Dec. 19 in order to accommodate the Council’s winter break.

On the night of Dec. 18, final negotiations for the community-benefit agreement were underway. On that evening, the LDC’s executive committee told LDC members it had been able to negotiate an increase in the size of the buyout of over 225 percent.

“Columbia had first come up with an offer of about $30 million in terms of [the community benefits package],” Kovaleff said. “The executive committee did a significant amount of negotiations — they got Columbia up to $100 [million].”

At that stage, members of the LDC felt that the community should receive more money for the displacement the expansion would cause, he said. The city had also offered to provide funding to the community through the agreement, but the LDC risked pushing too far and not obtaining as much money as it could from the city. Kovaleff likened the situation to Russian roulette.

“Had we not come to an agreement, there was the potential that we would have ended up shortchanging our community,” he said.

It was then, after several hours of discussions, that Columbia agreed to pay $150 million to the community through a memorandum of understanding.

The following day, when the City Council voted on the expansion, the stretch of time during which the funds would be allocated remained unsettled, Kovaleff said. That morning, university and community negotiators agreed to cut down that timespan, he said.

Still, a few local residents believe the negotiation process has not been open enough to community members, said Tom DeMott, a former member of the FDC and leader of the Coalition to Preserve Community, which opposes Columbia’s expansion.

Russell said the CCU tried to dominate community dialogue on the expansion. The $150 million could have a significant positive impact on the area, she said.

“We’ve given ourselves money with which the community can do anything,” Russell said.
The money has the potential to the change the lives of local residents for generations, allowing them to become “totally self-sufficient” and to find their own American dream, she said.

Still, Maritta Dunn, a member of the LDC, said both groups went into the negotiation process hoping for different outcomes, and it was necessary for the two groups to settle on a figure that fit between each of their expectations.

“We at least were able to reach something that was acceptable,” she said. “I don’t think it was what they wanted. I don’t think it was what we wanted.”