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Razing West Harlem

Why Columbia's proposed expansion has met resistance.

12:00 AM, Aug 9, 2007 • By DUNCAN CURRIE
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The university defends its $7 billion plan robustly. "Columbia projects that the expansion in Manhattanville will create 6,000 new University jobs, as well as an average of 1,200 construction jobs per year for nearly a quarter century," a recent press release stated. "The University has a strong record of employing community residents with a wide range of skills and experience in the workforce, as well as the engagement of minority-, women- and locally owned contractors--many of which are already playing key roles on Columbia's architecture and construction management teams."

What about local opinion in West Harlem? "Columbia foresees a Manhattanville graced with grand educational institutions and infused with money and energy after many lackluster years," the New York Times reported last month. "Some people, among them merchants who expect a boom in business, are eager for the change. But others in Manhattanville are unsure, and still others are strongly opposed, saying that the university is charging into Manhattanville just as the neighborhood begins to perk up, that they will be priced out of the revamped area and that other initiatives, like building affordable housing, are much more compelling."

The neighborhood has historically been zoned for manufacturing, which has typically stymied hopes for new commercial and residential development. Columbia needs to change this. It cleared the first hurdle in June, when the New York City Department of City Planning officially certified its rezoning application. According to Bollinger, the public review process "will probably last until the end of this calendar year."

Conditions in Manhattanville have improved demonstrably since the crack cocaine epidemic. "With crime much lower than it has been, outsiders now feel safe enough to move in," according to the New York Times. "I've been here since 1980," Sprayregen says. "The neighborhood has never been better." But will the holdout properties still be condemned?

That depends on the Empire State Development Corporation (ESDC), New York's official economic development agency, which wields eminent domain authority. Last year, the ESDC initiated a study to determine whether Columbia's expansion zone qualified as "blighted" (i.e., eligible for condemnation). It hired the consulting firm Allee King Rosen & Fleming Inc. (AKRF)--who, as it happened, was already working for the university.

"You have one consultant serving two masters," Sprayregen grouses. "We've had to sue the state a number of times because of their refusal to hand over certain documents." In late June, New York State Supreme Court Justice Shirley Werner Kornreich ordered the ESDC to release more than 100 documents, including legal bills and emails, because AKRF's position lacked "sufficient neutrality" to justify keeping them confidential. "AKRF, presumably, seeks to succeed in securing an outcome that its client, Columbia, would favor," Justice Kornreich explained.

AKRF has yet to issue its "blight" study. But some prominent African-American leaders have endorsed the expansion. In a May 27th New York Times op-ed, former mayor David Dinkins compared it to his own failed plans to revitalize West Harlem. "Columbia's Manhattanville proposal takes the best of these ideas to gradually create a new kind of open, urban campus that will improve local streets; bring back commercial life to Broadway, 125th Street and 12th Avenue; and better connect the residential areas of Harlem with the waterfront park now under construction along the Hudson River," Dinkins wrote. "This kind of long-term institutional growth will provide more jobs and entrepreneurial opportunities, as well as cultural and open space, to the diverse group of people who live in the area."

Columbia remains bullish on these benefits, at times dipping into moralistic self-congratulation. As a recent press release gushed, the proposed expansion would "allow the University to construct the kind of academic research buildings with the floor space needed for the type of research and study that confronts some of the most critical health issues facing the community and world such as strokes, Alzheimer's and Parkinson's disease."