Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Group looks to ‘blight’ Columbia plan - Students, tenants say West Harlem project being developed in secret

Group looks to ‘blight’ Columbia plan
Students, tenants say West Harlem project being developed in secret
by amy zimmer / metro new york
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FEB 20, 2007

COLUMBIA UNIVERSITY. A group of students unfurled a large banner on a snowy patch of the main campus with the word “blight” written in red. It was a gesture of solidarity by the Student Coalition on Expansion and Gentrification with community members who they then shared the microphone with at a press conference denouncing the university’s plans to develop 17 acres in West Harlem.

Several residents and business owners in that zone are worried the state may designate the area as blighted to seize their property, making way for the $7 billion 30-year plan. Though Columbia has agreed to negotiate a “Community Benefits Agreement” with the West Harlem Local Development Corporation — a group of public housing residents, businesses and elected officials — SCEG members such as Rowan Moore Gerety remain skeptical.

“There’s been a lot of concern about the lack of transparency,” Moore Gerety, a Columbia senior, said. “Being that this is the only legally binding agreement [for the community], we’re concerned they’re going to negotiate in private sessions without public comment.”

Nellie Hester Bailey, co-founder of the Harlem Tenants Council, criticized the CBA as being “tainted from the very beginning” because of the inclusion of elected officials. Columbia’s hiring of Bill Lynch, Democratic strategist and former deputy mayor in the Dinkins administration, “only adds another layer in the conflict of interest.”

Nick Sprayregen, the owner of Tuck-It-Away storage who has five properties in the proposed expansion area, said he would fight any blight designation and claimed that empty buildings with weeds growing through them were owned by Columbia. The school has acquired roughly 80 percent of the 17-acre site.

“There is no affordable housing component of the plan, even though that is a mandate for the Bloomberg administration,” said Sprayregen, who is a member of the local development corporation. He has filed his own application with the city to rezone four of his properties in the footprint from manufacturing to allow for taller buildings to build affordable housing.

“We want to talk about affordable housing and these are things we are doing in private,” said LaVerna Fountain, a Columbia spokeswoman. Though she said the university was “constantly trying to make sure we get the word out,” the community “can’t be involved in every negotiation. We’re talking with businesses and have to be respectful of their privacy.”
Alum effort

Kenny Schaeffer, a Columbia alum who attended the school from 1968 through 1976, is spearheading an alumni campaign against the expansion. The group plans to publish an ad in the Columbia Spectator asking alums to ignore the school’s $4 billion capital campaign to help fund the $7 billion project “until the needs of the community are addressed,” he said.


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