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.”

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