Columbia Expansion 101: Wealthy University Devours West Harlem

Paul Schrodt Aug 31, 2007

columbiaillnessA year ago, six auto repair shops packed the corner of Broadway and 131st Street, in West Harlem’s dingy industrial zone. The bulky, five-story building employed about 45 people, mostly black and Latino residents of the area, who spent their days servicing cars that rolled in from homes on the West Side.

At the end of July, both workers and property owners were emptied out of their shops. Not long after buying 3251 Broadway last year, Columbia University informed the tenants that they would have to permanently vacate the space. The school does not plan to demolish 3251 Broadway until 2015 when it will make room for its ambitious $7 billion 17-acre academia mixed-use expansion project.
But for the next eight years — like many local businesses plucked by the university — the building will collect dust.

“I don’t have a job,” Tony Garcia said flatly, shrugging. A large, Dominican man with a dour expression, Garcia sat under the scaffolding of 3251 Broadway Auto Center, before the business was forced to close shop by its new landlord. At 38-years old, he has worked in this building for the last 14 years. “There are only 12 to 13 guys here now,” said Garcia through broken English. Some of the guys are trying to find jobs in the area, but they close everything. Columbia has everything. You can’t find a job. You have to go to the Bronx maybe. You know?”

But according to Columbia’s statistics, Garcia’s sudden change of fate does not count as a lost job. Columbia estimates that 902 permanent jobs will be lost by 2030, but those do not include people who lost work after their landlord “voluntarily” sold their building to the university giant.



In Manhattanville, this kind of story has become old news. Since the late 1990s, Columbia has amassed about 70 percent of the property it seeks, vacating many of the buildings. As the university has grown, West Harlem’s manufacturing and service shops have fallen by the wayside. In the 1990s, West Harlem’s industrial sector added 403 jobs to the workforce.

But between 2000 and 2002, when Columbia picked up the bulk of its Manhattanville property, this same industry suffered a sharp loss of 372 jobs, according to a study commissioned by Community Board 9 (CB9), which represents West Harlem.

For local residents, Columbia’s expansion comes with the sting of irony. Having emptied out a large portion of Manhattanville, the university is now asking New York to find the area “blighted,” so that it can use eminent domain, a state government power, in order to force remaining holdouts to sell and demolish the area for “public benefit,” as university President Lee Bollinger put it in a March interview on WNYC’s “The Brian Lehrer Show.” This “public benefit” comes in the form of urban renewal. Bollinger says the new campus is about building the future. Columbia estimates that its new facility will generate 7,086 permanent jobs on site, though the vast majority of those would not be available to the average person currently living in West Harlem, where 32 percent of residents hold less than a high school education.

“Moving all these people out and getting them ready for the development is a very systematic sort of ethnic cleansing, to put it harshly,” says attorney Philip van Buren, who represents three of the auto shops at 3251 Broadway. “But that’s what it is. You’re replacing one community — a low income, mostly black one — with one that is educated.” Though only 291 residents live within the construction area, the university’s environmental impact statement submitted to the city reports that housing pressures may displace as many as 3,293 surrounding residents by 2030.

Columbia, for its part, is not one to mince words in its vision for Manhattanville. While an alternative re-zoning plan proposed by CB9 imagines Columbia and light manufacturing living in cohabitation, the university’s plan abandons industry, which Bollinger calls a dying breed, for an “integrated” academic complex scattered with retail stores. And Columbia needs the space, or so it says. Finished with build-outs in Morningside Heights and eager to launch new research, the university is looking uptown for its future. “[At Harvard and Yale] they’re not talking 17 acres. They’re talking hundreds of acres,” says La-Verna Fountain, a Columbia spokesperson. She sounds outraged at the insult.

The message is clear: If Columbia hopes to keep up with breakthrough research at competing institutions, it needs to do something — and fast. Manhattanville will offer ample room for its business school, its school of the arts — and perhaps most crucially — biotechnology labs.

“Here’s the point: If we get this so that our needs are met for the next 20, 30 years, it allows us to stop this ad-hoc technique of buying buildings,” Fountain says. “We have to look down the road and ask ourselves, what do we need, and do that in a way that benefits our neighbors. And I think we’ve done a good job. It’s painful, and some people oppose it, but that’s okay, because that’s what happens.”

While it awaits approval for eminent domain, Columbia has continued to negotiate with landlords. But in assessing what, if any, compensation tenants and employees will get out of the deals, all Fountain can say is, “There are business owners who look out for their employees, and I can’t speak for the other ones.”

Van Buren laughs heartily at this statement. “That’s very forthright on Columbia’s part. They’re not usually that forthright,” he says. “Columbia is within its rights as a developer. There are many vicious developers. Columbia’s just like any other private landlord.”

The difference, of course, is that Columbia is not quite like any other private landlord. It’s an applicant for public benefit. On the same episode of “The Brian Lehrer Show,” President Bollinger defended eminent domain on the grounds that Columbia serves a higher public cause. He acknowledges that, as a not for-profit, the school receives important tax breaks and the development will benefit from huge government subsidies.

“In exchange for this public largesse, Columbia owes,” according to van Buren. “And they owe to mitigate the project as much as they can — so it hurts as little as possible.” If Columbia does obtain eminent domain power, that power will come with more than a little irony and plenty of nagging questions, challenging even the basic idea that the university’s project falls under “public use.” Van Buren’s clients and others formed the United Manhattanville Tenants, which has joined other groups protesting the development’s two-faced tactics.

Though Bollinger claims to “work with the community,” van Buren does not hesitate to describe Columbia as West Harlem’s “slumlord.”

“[The school] refuses to do building repairs.

They make false claims of debt to tenants. They try to coerce the tenants to sign leases that are less favorable. Then if the tenants hire lawyers, they punish them,” van Buren says, with exasperation in his voice. “They’re playing a very heavy hand.”


Under New York’s Uniform Land Use Review Procedure, CB9 has the opportunity to review Columbia’s re-zoning plan and make recommendations based on a vote of its board members. On Aug. 20, the community board took a clear stance, voting 31-2 against Columbia’s expansion project. The City Planning Commission, the City Council and the mayor will take the nonbinding vote under consideration before making their final decisions on the project.

“We’re portrayed sometimes as anti-development, and we’re not. We just don’t want our community destroyed,” said Ruth Eisenberg, a member of the Coalition to Preserve Community, the Associated Press reported Aug. 21. At a previous July 9 CB9 meeting, every one of the 50 people who testified supported the 197-A rezoning plan, an alternative to Columbia’s plan that draws its ideas from the West Harlem community and took almost 20 years to complete, starting when the neighborhood first saw gentrification written on its sooty walls.

The 197-A plan would make room for most of Columbia’s expansion plans, but it would also ensure the retention of current industry and affordable housing in the surrounding area.

At this specific gathering, speakers were asked not to speak about Columbia. Instead, they highlighted West Harlem’s own organization in outlining a vision for its future.

(Columbia, under its past president, was instrumental in helping to draft the 197-A plan, though it has since turned its back on it.) But implicit in almost all of their comments among residents, landowners and idealistic protesters — lay a deeper fear of the elephant in the room: eminent domain.


In many ways, the conflict over Manhattanville is not a new one; it is the oldest story of economic development. But it speaks to a more immediate controversy that has besieged New York real estate in the last decade, as private developers have become more aggressive in their pursuit of properties serving low-income neighborhoods. With eminent domain, a huge entity like Columbia has no incentive to compromise with the community’s needs. It’s “like negotiating with a gun,” as state Senator Bill Perkins, who represents West Harlem, said at the July CB9 meeting. There was a time when eminent domain was used simply to turn the private into the public — a highway or a railroad. But increasingly, states use eminent domain to turn private properties over to even wealthier private developers. These new projects create jobs, bring in more tax revenue and make an area look better, any or all of which may qualify as “public use.” Mayor Michael Bloomberg, never one to deny economic growth — even if the rights of property owners get in the way — believes a city can create jobs if its officials are free to decide for themselves what constitutes “public use.” (See

To understand how eminent domain has been transformed in the recent past, one need only look as far back as Kelo v. City of New London, the 2005 Supreme Court case on eminent domain. By the court’s decision, state governments can interpret “public use” very broadly, to mean anything from a park to growth in the private sector. The court invited states to place restrictions on how eminent domain is used — and 46 states have, but not New York.

“Here the power is so concentrated in the governor, the senate majority leader and the speaker of the assembly, that to take power over eminent domain, all you have to do is get those three people in a room and you can make a lot happen,” says David Reiss, an associate professor at the Brooklyn Law School.

As recently as last year, New York used eminent domain to jumpstart the Atlantic Yards development in Brooklyn, a massive Forest City Ratner project whose centerpiece is a Frank Gehry-designed Nets basketball arena. Buried among the high-end condos and a boutique hotel lies, finally, the public part: about 2,250 units of affordable income housing.

By comparison, Columbia’s definition of “public use” looks even fuzzier. There is nothing technically public about its 17-acre development, except the walkways and green space that will cut through the campus. But because Columbia is an educational institution and not a basketball arena, the development suggests public service.

“If Atlantic Yards can survive,” Reiss says, “then there’s no question Columbia can also.”


Only five blocks separate the end of Columbia University’s current campus and the beginning of its proposed Manhattanville site, but the two locations may as well be cities apart. Fresh-faced and fashionable, students buzz around Morningside Heights. The neighborhood is dotted with locally owned bookshops, coffeehouses crowded with laptops and geopolitical messages scrawled on the bathroom walls in place of phone numbers (“Liar Bush Murders for Oil,” warns a corner of the stall in the Hungarian Pastry Shop on 111th St.).

Things quiet down north of 122nd St., until at 125th St. — as if all of a sudden —West Harlem takes over, a line of McDonald’s, liquor stores and the occasional loiterers simply hanging out on the block. The mostly white faces of Columbia become the mostly black faces of Manhattanville. Past here — at the heart of the university’s proposed expansion area — service shops and warehouses sit in disrepair.

Walking this short tour, it’s easy to imagine the gentrification already at work in Morningside Heights creeping uptown. More fresh faces, more coffee shops. “If not Columbia, then who?” Fountain asks. It’s a good question. What if Columbia doesn’t develop, and another private developer moves in? Are they likely to be any kinder? As Fountain puts it, “You look out there, and you see the Hudson River, and the 1 Train line, and then you see the possibilities of development.”

Columbia does its best to skirt individual responsibility for gentrification. Rather than be the beast, it makes the issue itself the beast. What may — or rather, will —happen in Manhattanville “[has] to do with New York. New York is at this really interesting time,” Fountain says, as if indicating that giant gears underneath Manhattan actually run this city. Indeed, any development of this kind will come with secondary displacement. “There are always losers,” Fountain assures.

This argument does not sit well with West Harlem, in part, because Columbia is actively exacerbating the problem. The school approaches development as an allor-nothing proposition — either expand into Manhattanville and push out the current industry, or let it rest. But Columbia’s adjunct associate professor of urban planning, Moshe Adler, argues that this undercuts its most vital role as a developer: to help the people who already reside in West Harlem. “Gentrification is not bad if it is only an addition of the gentry and everyone else gets to stay put,” he says.

Columbia says that its project is, overall, positive for the public at large, but according to Adler this assertion needs more inspection. “Who are you helping, rich people or poor people? My way for counting that is to look at the damage that is done, and the alternatives. What if we don’t get the university? Well, we’ll have a university somewhere else. What if we dislocate poor people? That will be a loss to human livelihood,” he says.

At a glance, it easy to assume there is no conflict over Columbia’s development at all. Many of its own students don’t grasp the full ramifications of the plan, several Columbia undergraduates say. When Jennie Rose, now a sophomore at Barnard College, toured the Columbia campus as a high school student, no mention was made of the expansion, which had been announced in 2003 and was already well underway. “If you go to any of their press events, they have tens of millions of dollars to spend on press. A lot of times the only side students see is Columbia’s side,” she says.

To Columbia’s public-relations arm, the proposed development is all roses. Its website presents the project in lofty terms:

“As new fields of knowledge emerge, the nation’s universities are growing in order to have the physical space needed to pursue the missions of teaching, research, public service and patient care. Because Columbia University is dedicated to fulfilling its role as a globally respected academic institution that is also committed to the economic, intellectual, social and cultural vitality of its local community, it has proposed long-term expansion in the old Manhattanville manufacturing zone in West Harlem.”

Perhaps Columbia talks with such cool restraint because, at the end of the day, it can. If economics tell us anything, it’s that Columbia will likely get what it wants. Any community opposition to Columbia’s vigorous development project, no matter how well staged, must confront the realities of the university’s size and clout.
“Although the city is legally bound to show interest in the 197-A plan, the reality is their desire is only to serve the interests of Columbia University,” Maritta Dunn, a former chair of Community Board 9, lamented at a recent meeting of the group.

This, of course, could change. If the power of eminent domain is reclaimed for strictly public use, New York’s private developers may not be able to rely on the city and state’s assistance. In the wake of Kelo v. City of New London, a Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll found that “private property rights” tops the list of Americans’ legal concerns. “Judges read the newspaper, they see what’s going on and their views on jurisprudence can change as time changes,” Reiss says.

But for now, at least, you can’t talk about government urban planning without also talking about private interests. In the case of Columbia — the seventh largest nongovernmental employer in New York — the relationship between the two cuts deep. The university has even enlisted the help of a consulting firm run by Bill Lynch, a vice chair of the Democratic National Committee, in order to sell its case to City Hall.

Protesters say this presents a conflict of interest:When it comes to the City’s elected officials, Lynch told the New York Observer in March, “I know them all.” He defends that, “I don’t have any official relationship with them.”

As chairman of Community Board 9, Jordi Reyes-Montblanc has held “umpteen” meetings with Columbia. The school prides itself on talking to its neighbors. But while this outreach suggests discussion, Reyes-Montblanc says Columbia’s pitch has been more of a monologue. When community members voice their concerns, a university representative will often reiterate the importance of the development and then change the subject.

“They have this institutional frame of mind. If it’s good for Columbia and some little people have to suffer, that’s too bad for those little people, because Columbia’s needs are superior to anybody else’s. After all, Columbia is going to benefit humanity,” he says, before pausing. “Do you detect sarcasm in my voice?”

When asked why he thinks Columbia hasn’t embraced the community’s 197-A rezoning plan, Reyes-Montblanc’s response comes without hesitation: “Because Columbia is Columbia. They are the 2,000-pound gorilla.”

Top: Illustration by JENNIFER LEW, Photos: A mechanic at F & F Body Shop and Radiator Service, one of the auto-repair shops on 131st Street. Below: Mechanics working at 3251 Broadway. Photos: Alex Nathanson

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