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Students, Harlem Restaurant Owner Embroiled in Latest Conflict Over Columbia University’s Expansion Plans

Andrew Lyubarsky Mar 24, 2009

Ramon Diaz never wanted it to be this way.

Diaz is the owner of Mi Floridita restaurant, a Cuban diner which was founded by his uncle Benito Diaz in 1965 and sits as a beacon of activity among the warehouses of the Manhattanville section of West Harlem. The restaurateur thought he could reach an agreement with Columbia University, as the university was seeking to develop the land around his restaurant to pave its way for its new campus. He had been entirely cooperative with Columbia, who was also his landlord, and didn’t believe that the expansion was going to necessarily hurt his business. He was one of the first business-owners in the area to propose a land swap to the university, and he thought things were going well, as Columbia showed him around to various properties in the area.

Then, shortly after Columbia secured all the approvals it needed from the city and state authorities to push forward their expansion plan, the tune abruptly changed. The university began alleging that he owed over a hundred thousand dollars in utilities and tax bills. Relocation offers turned into “possibilities” that were never realized. After October 2008, the university just stopped calling.

Suddenly, on December 22nd, 2008, Diaz received a certified letter from the Empire State Development Corporation (ESDC), the state body which had recently found that the area was “blighted” and was preparing to use the state’s power of eminent domain to transfer property to the university. He was surprised to find that the block and lot number that corresponded to Floridita were listed as “one of the properties that would be subject to acquisition by the ESDC.”

Floridita is located on Columbia property, but it has a legally binding lease that lasts until 2015. However, after the approval of the University’s General Project Plan, the same provision that would allow the ESDC to acquire properties in the area whose owners have refused to sell would also allow for the lease’s early termination. Essentially, the university would have its own property condemned and then returned to it.

Worried that the University was refusing to comment on this letter and that it refused to continue discussing relocation deals, Diaz turned to the Student Coalition on Expansion and Gentrification (SCEG), a Columbia student group that had been working on issues surrounding their university’s expansion for years. Together, they planned a Valentine’s Day event to highlight his treatment by the university.

In an email to student organizers, University spokesperson and Associate Director of Facilities LaVerna Fountain reiterated the university’s position that “we are open to discussion about possible new locations for his business in retail space to be developed within the project area. However, no assurances about any particular location or date when any such space will become available were given to Mr. Diaz.”

Over Cuban sandwiches and arroz con pollo, around 150 students and concerned community members filled the restaurant, to hear Mr. Diaz, neighborhood activists from the Coalition to Preserve Community, and student leaders call for Columbia University to respect the promises it had been making to Floridita. The indoor rally was then followed by a walking tour of the expansion area to be affected by Columbia’s plans.

Local television station NY1 was there to document the event, and interviewed Mr. Diaz as well as several student organizers. However, after a phone-call from University spokeswoman Fountain, who reported that the university was in ongoing negotiations with the restaurant and that students were misrepresenting the situation, the TV station did not show coverage of the event.

Diaz maintains that this is false and that no meetings on the topic of relocation have occurred since October 2008.

“It is outrageous that University administration would interfere with our freedom of speech and lie to the media to kill this story!” exclaimed Columbia University senior and SCEG member Victoria Ruiz. “We have to make sure that the university does not roll over the community in our name.”

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