Tom Kappner wouldn’t budge—not for this. As Columbia University publicly revealed its plans to develop in West Harlem before a city hearing, Kappner and a group of other protestors stood their ground outside the double doors. Although this meeting was supposed to be open to the public, there were no more empty seats, and a city official asked the group to kindly “sit in the lobby.”
“We’ll just stand here until you arrest us,” Kappner told the official.
On Monday, June 18, residents of West Harlem fought to keep their streets. Columbia’s hope to expand into Manhattanville, announced in 2002, has turned into a five-year struggle with community members who want to slow the tide of gentrification in an area known for its manufacturing industry. Not only will those jobs disappear if Columbia moves in, but the new campus could indirectly displace as many as about 3,300 residents in the area, by the school’s own estimation.
Chants of “127th street—not for sale! 128th street—not for sale!” echoed on the street outside the Department of City Planning (DCP) building, where a commission was to decide whether it would certify Columbia’s Land Use Review Application. For Community Board 9, which represents the affected area, this could not have come at a worse time. If the application is certified, it only has 60 days to file its opposing recommendation—in the middle of the summer, as the board moves into new offices, and when many volunteer consultants are out of the city. Protestors barked “disenfranchisement” into the windows of DCP.
Either the commission didn’t listen, or it had its own opinions: The application was certified, meaning Community Board 9 will have to wade through hundreds, maybe thousands of pages of documents in the next two months on limited resources.
“You can’t just say you’re for or against it—you have to give reasons. And if you’re looking at a huge document like this Environmental Impact Statement [filed by Columbia]—in order to deal with that, you need the time,” said Tom DeMott, who is with the Coalition to Preserve Community that is fighting Columbia’s expansion.
Of course, everyone guessed Columbia might file their application at a time when the community board was at its weakest. Throughout the planning process, the university has made few if any compromises with the opposition. It has promised but given no concrete guarantees that it will find affordable housing for displaced residents. Columbia President Lee Bollinger even refused to take eminent domain off the table, a power normally reserved for public institutions, which Columbia—in spite of Bollinger’s arguments to the contrary—is not. With eminent domain, Columbia could conceivably force Manhattanville landowners onto the streets.
Not only is Columbia not taking eminent domain off the table, evidence suggests it is actively pursuing it. In 2005, the Columbia Daily Spectator uncovered hidden payments of hundreds of thousands of dollars the university made to the Empire State Development Corporation in order to begin a process that might find Manhattanville “blighted,” and thus vulnerable to eminent domain.
What will happen if Columbia gets eminent domain?
“Good question,” chuckled Bryan Mercer, a senior at Columbia and member of the Student Coalition on Expansion and Gentrification. “I think no one knows what will actually happen. Something to look out for is what happened in Brooklyn’s Atlantic Yards.” Eminent domain was used in Atlantic Yards for a multi-billion dollar development project by Bruce Ratner, which will include a new Nets basketball arena, commercial offices and a “boutique hotel,” among other things—not what many would say is “for the public good.”
If Columbia does obtain eminent domain, it will come with some irony: Columbia already controls or owns most of the properties in the area where it hopes to expand, so it has had at least some influence over its allegedly “blighted” condition.
Community Board 9’s opposition to the expansion project faces this daunting fact: Columbia University is the second largest private landowner in New York City. Columbia says it needs more space to keep apace with the innovative research of other Ivy League institutions, and many believe it has the political connections to make that happen.
To help market its case to the public, Columbia has enlisted Bill Lynch’s consulting firm, Bill Lynch Associates. And if local politicians didn’t already favor the university, Lynch might easily do the trick. As one of five vice chairs of the Democratic National Committee, Lynch helps oversee funding for the campaigns of local Democratic politicians, some of whom will be voting on Columbia’s proposed expansion.
“There is no Democratic official who hasn’t received funds from the Democratic Party,” DeMott says. “And he dispersed those funds. I’m not saying he gave them money so they’d always vote in his favor, but it’s a serious conflict-of-interest.”
According to DeMott, this is one more way in which Columbia has positioned itself as the bullying giant looming over West Harlem.
“Columbia is a huge and powerful institution. They have made no bones about trying to grab hold of every trick in the book,” he said.
“WE’RE NOT GOING TO LOSE THIS FIGHT”
For all the ways in which Columbia has indisputably changed since 1968, some would say they’ve also remained the same. In that politically tumultuous year, the university seized another section of its surrounding neighborhood, provoking a student outcry that has become part of this city’s notorious history.
“I think they’ve learned. They’re more sophisticated. They have a more well-oiled public relations apparatus. But the community has learned a lot, too. We’re not going to let that happen again,” Tom Kappner said. Kappner graduated from Columbia in 1966 and has lived in the area ever since.
In its defense, Columbia argues the new campus will create the need for thousands of jobs. Manufacturing is a dying industry anyway, by all accounts. But for some in the community, this is no consolation. Sonia Reyes represents a building in West Harlem mostly occupied by immigrant workers. Columbia recently bought the building and tried to evict its residents.
“Those are the kinds of jobs we think they should be protecting. These are immigrants who aren’t likely to get jobs with the Columbia expansion. We don’t think those people should be left out of the future of West Harlem,” DeMott said.
Reyes stood on Reade Street with the other protestors Monday, asking Columbia to stay out of her neighborhood.
“We are Harlem. We belong to Harlem,” she said. “And we want to stay in Harlem.”
On WNYC’s “The Brian Lehrer Show,” President Bollinger defended Columbia’s conversion of this manufacturing area into an extension of a prestigious academic institution, saying it would pave the way for the next century of creative thought and scientific innovation. But for Mercer, that’s just not proper justification.
“I think that the university is a private institution, and it largely serves the interests of its students and faculty. Bollinger says those 3,300 people aren’t as important as the school’s new research labs that could find the cure for cancer,” Mercer said. “The question is not whether 3,300 people should be able to live in this neighborhood or we should find a cure for cancer. It’s a question of whether those people need to be prevented from living in their homes in order to find a cure for cancer.”
If the city approves Columbia’s re-zoning and subsequent transformation of Manhattanville, the Coalition to Preserve Community is not prepared to back down—as DeMott says, “We’re not going to lose this fight.”
“It’s ridiculous to think they can get away with this,” Kappner said. “I remember in ’68 it only took four people standing in front of the bulldozer, and this time we’re going to have a lot more.”