Tuesday, August 21, 2007

CB9 Votes Down Expansion Plan

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CB9 Votes Down Expansion Plan
By Sara Vogel
Issue date: 8/21/07 Section: News

An overwhelming majority of Community Board 9 voted Monday night to oppose Columbia's plan to develop a 17-acre swath of West Harlem unless the University complies with a set of ten specific conditions.

The vote - 32 to one with two abstentions - did not surprise too many of those gathered in the gymnasium of the Manhattanville Community Center. Most expected the board would copy the vote of its Uniform Land Use Review Procedure committee, which decided Wednesday to oppose Columbia's plan after a contentious and chaotic hearing.

Monday's meeting was calmer, with confusion erupting only when Jordi Reyes-Montblanc, the chair of CB9 said he had decided to abstain from the vote.

"I have been involved in too many things that have had to do with this process," he said. He later changed his vote to oppose Columbia's plan.

The Community Board stated they would not budge unless their conditions were met. These conditions ranged from Columbia's withdrawal of eminent domain to the creation of affordable apartments on and off site. "The train for negotiation has left the station," Walter South, a board member, said.

But Columbia officials said the Community Board's nay vote won't send them back to the drawing board, and will instead push them to continue negotiating a community benefits agreement--a tool used in the past by neighborhood residents in other city neighborhoods to get developers to provide, for example, units of affordable housing, community facilities, and jobs in exchange for support and good public relations.

University President Lee Bollinger said in an interview that he hopes the ten concerns raised by members of the community board are brought up at CBA drafting meetings. "It's always better to have a unanimous vote in your favor," he said. But, noting the support the plan has from state officials and Mayor Michael Bloomberg, he added, "we have to really take this focus and try to arrive at a mutually beneficial agreement."

The Board's vote is only advisory - the city council and the City Planning Commission's are the only bodies that get binding votes and the mayor gets to exercise a veto. But if after his thirty day review period, Borough President Scott Stringer decides to oppose the plan, it may be politically difficult for the city council to justify rezoning the area for Columbia expansion when a majority of community representatives oppose the plan.

Stringer's office did not return calls for comment, but councilmember Robert Jackson, who has the expansion footprint in his district, stood at the back of the gym, watching the proceedings quietly. A member of the committee drafting the CBA, he said he'd like to move forward on those negotiations. "The Community Board vote is advisory," he said. "I'd take that advice and consider what's best for everyone in the area."

But Tom DeMott of the Coalition to Preserve Community, a group opposing Columbia's plan, said Jackson was "eerily silent" at the last hearing, and Dickens has "not said essentially a word" in support or opposed to his group.

DeMott and Bryan Mercer from the Student Coalition on Expansion and Gentrification said now that the Community Board has played its formal role, their groups will focus on raising questions about the socio-economic and environmental impacts of Columbia's plan at hearings before the City Planning Commission though they have said they will continue to put pressure on Columbia to compromise on the Community Board's conditions.

Many organizers and activists will also spread their attention - some reluctantly - to getting the most out of CBA negotiations.

The organized support for Columbia's expansion in the form of the freshly-minted Coalition for the Future of Manhattanville has also redoubled efforts, introducing members Rev. Reginald Williams, the pastor of Harlem's Charity Baptist Church of Christ, and Dr. Rafael Lantigua who founded the Northern Manhattan Coalition for Immigrant Rights, to the press on Monday.

Bollinger said he hoped the Coalition would "help validate" the University's efforts by uniting those in the community who support the plan. Many opposed to the plan have criticized the group, which was organized by Columbia's paid consulting firm, Bill Lynch Associates. BLA was hired by Columbia in April 2006 to consult and lobby on behalf of its Manhattanville expansion.

Lantigua, a faculty member at Columbia Presbyterian who does not live in Manhattanville, said he joined the Coalition on his own to serve as a "mediator to improve the dialogue" between the University and the Manhattanville community.


NB - It is the stated and reaffirmed policy of CB9M that only those who reside within the District have anything to say on what happens in the District. With all due respect to those luminaries brought in by Columbia University from OUTSIDE our community they should know clearly that their opinions, beliefs or comments are neither solicited, appreciated or welcomed by the West Harlem communities.

It is a fact that our community has NEVER been consulted about major projects carried out in other CB Districts and it is only costumary that when a project abuts another Community Board District both CBs coordinate and work together, however that is not case with the Columbia Expansion which is right smack in the center of District 9 and does not abut any other CB District. CB9M is willing to discuss the ripple effects if any with surrounding CB Districts but other than that all outsiders, regardless of who they are or think they are, should keep out - JRM

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