Columbia’s Manhattanville Farce

Andrew Lyubarsky Jul 22, 2008

On July 17th, the next sad chapter of the city’s failure to stand up to Columbia University’s plans to build a new campus in West Harlem-Manhattanville unfolded as the Empire State Development Corporation, the state body that has the power to seize properties from local business-owners and turn them over to the university, issued its General Project Plan. The plan declares the current Manhattanville neighborhood to be “blighted”, “underutilized” and “unattractive”, and then extols the benefits that Columbia could potentially bring to the neighborhood in terms of job creation, generation of public space, and services for the West Harlem community.

One problem. The major owner of these blighted, underutilized, unattractive, mostly vacant buildings is Columbia University.

And the firm responsible for creating this glowing report? Why, AKRF, the very same firm Columbia contracted in developing the project.

Taking this fact as a springboard, let’s go down the rabbit-hole and take a look at the history of this expansion.

In 2004, Columbia formed a Community Advisory Board which was given the role of supposedly having substantive input on the plans’ development. The final report generated by this body told Columbia what community groups and Community Board 9 had by then been telling the university for quite some time – the university’s final plans should fall within the general framework outlined by Community Board 9’s 197-a plan. This plan called for a mixed-use area that would attempt to stimulate the return of highly-specialized manufacturing jobs and generate affordable housing while allowing the university to build a portion of the space that it was requesting. The board was summarily dissolved after publishing this report.

In April 2005, the Columbia Spectator runs an exposé on a secret deal, in which the university gave the ESDC hundreds of thousands of dollars to conduct the blight study that would be crucial to any finding eminent domain-related property transfers. Or, rather, so they could hire Columbia’s consultants to do so. Huh.

In June 2007, the City Planning Commission issues its Draft Environmental Impact Statement, thus commencing the land-use review process for the expansion plan. The document arbitrarily limits the areas which the expansion could potentially affect, considering Morningside Park as an impassable boundary and ignoring the presence of Columbia’s Washington Heights medical campus to the north. It doesn’t consider the well-documented possibility of currently affordable, rent-stabilized and SRO units leaving these programs due to landlord harassment, and only views affiliates directly generated by Columbia as potential gentrifiers. Despite these limitations, the study still concludes that 3,293 people will be at risk of secondary displacement by the year 2030.

In August 2007, Community Board 9 votes 32-2 to reject the Columbia proposal and continues to promote its 197-a development plan. In a raucous, overflowing meeting, Columbia President Lee Bollinger is booed for several minutes; it sets ten conditions for its approval. Columbia vows to continue discussions with the community board. Not a single official meeting is held.

In October 2007, Borough President Scott Stringer holds a public hearing at CCNY as part of the review process. The tone of the meeting, aside from those directly employed by or affiliated with Columbia, overwhelmingly against the plan. A week later, Stringer offers his endorsement of the plan, having extracted a promise of $20 million for a revolving loan fund for affordable housing. This is approximately equivalent to 1/350th of the total 7 billion dollar cost of the program. Opponents declare this to be miserly.

In November 2007, six students launch a ten-day hunger strike calling for Columbia to revise its expansion plans in line with CB9’s decision. No action is taken.

The same month, five members of the Local Development Corporation, the city-appointed body designated to negotiate a Community Benefits Agreement with the university, resign in disgust, claiming that the process was dominated by Columbia-friendly politicians who had no interest in standing up to the university. The representative for one of the largest public housing projects in the building, the faith-based representative, the tenants’ organization representative and the business-owners’ representative are among them.

In December 2007, the final City Council vote is abruptly pushed forward with no explanation given before the Christmas recess. Councilman Robert Jackson, who represents the area, takes a position of support for the expansion at the vote, after having been officially neutral throughout the process. He is buoyed by Central Harlem councilwoman Inez Dickens in this position. Columbia had been using Bill Lynch and Associates, a consulting firm operated by the former deputy mayor and DNC vice-chair, to lobby politicians to support its position. Although many council members profess reservations, they vote in favor of the plan because of the Harlem Democratic establishment’s support.

The entire discourse of the city planning community has been that the jobs and “neighborhood improvement” that Columbia will offer West Harlem are so essential that the City basically has to roll over so that Columbia doesn’t get angry and take its billions elsewhere. However, this is an obviously counterfactual argument – the university isn’t going to build a state-of-the-art campus in New Jersey when it owns most of the property ten blocks north of 116th street. It also happens to be a uniquely PR-sensitive institution with a vocal minority of students that are willing to make a ruckus about the blatantly corrupt way this was carried out. With the proper political pressure, a truly unique settlement could have been reached, with the university putting hundreds of millions of dollars into truly affordable housing programs that would substantially mitigate its impact and potentially slow the gentrification of Harlem in exchange for being to build some of what it needed.

Instead, what we have seen is an elaborate farce that will play out with tragic consequences for real-estate prices and already quick community displacement in Manhattanville.

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