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C'mon, Columbia, Take Eminent Domain Off the Table

Julia Vitullo-Martin, March 2007

Is there any serious doubt that Columbia University's strategy to expand northward into Manhattanville is basically good for New York? Columbia urgently needs space—and Manhattanville, formerly an industrial area, has plenty of space to accommodate Columbia's handsome Renzo Piano plan.

(©Julia Vitullo-Martin)

Land-locked as it is on its Morningside Heights campus, Columbia has long had almost no ability to build the new research facilities and laboratories that are essential to keeping it ranked among the world's great universities. Indeed, it now has less than 200 square feet per student—far less than its nearby competitors, Princeton, Penn, or Harvard.

As New York City's seventh largest private employer—and surely one of its most prestigious—Columbia's new campus would add another 6,900 premium jobs to the local economy. The 17 acres on which it hopes to build what it's calling an "academic center" between 125th and 133rd Streets and Broadway and Riverside Drive are largely underutilized relative to the rest of Manhattan—in part because the area is zoned industrial and has been waiting for decades for a new economic use.

Now the economic use is here, and those who care about the city's economy should be cheering. The same advocates who routinely denounce employers (Wal-Mart, for example) for providing only poorly paid jobs without benefits should be out in force applauding Columbia's highly paid jobs with generous benefits and pensions. Yet local support for Columbia has been far from unanimous, and the advocates (including some Columbia graduates) are mainly on the other side. One of the world's finest research and teaching universities, Columbia may be more renowned abroad than loved here at home.

(©Julia Vitullo-Martin)

How can that be? Part of the problem is the somehow ever-fresh historical legacy of 1968, when Columbia's plan to build a gym in Morningside Park provoked fierce community opposition. And part is the class antagonism generated by an exclusive, elite university bordered by struggling neighborhoods.

EMINENT DOMAIN'S UGLY THREAT
But part of the hostility is due to Columbiaís stubborn insistence on retaining eminent domain as an option to be exercised by the State of New York if Columbia cannot purchase privately all the land it believes it needs.

"We're not going to take it off the table," says Columbia's executive vice president Robert Kasdin. "We're going to preserve our right to argue to the state that itís in the public interest that they do it."

Even the strongest Harlem supporters of the Manhattanville plan, like realtor Willie Kathryn Suggs, balk at eminent domain. "I don't want them invoking eminent domain for private use. It's not right," says Suggs. "The neighborhood will get safer streets and better restaurants. I want that to happen. But under the rules. If they want more property they should buy it fairly, like anyone else."

And the opponents are ferocious. Manhattanville's largest private property owner, Nick Sprayregen, President of Tuck-It-Away Self-Storage, says that Columbia wants four of his five buildings. (The fifth, which was landmarked last year, is being left alone.) "I won't move," says Sprayregen. "But Columbia wants it all—100% of everything. They have no desire for nuance, for compromise, for diversity."

(©Julia Vitullo-Martin)

Or as resident Luisa Henriquez says, "Columbia moving in is a bad thing because Columbia isn't willing to share." Henriquez lives on 132nd Street in a city-owned building (one of two in the expansion site) that is operating under the Department of Housing Preservation and Development's Tenant Interim Lease (TIL) apartment lease purchase program. TIL trains tenant associations to manage and maintain their building with the ultimate goal of permitting tenants to buy their apartments for $250—a remnant of the bad days of property abandonment in the 1970s and early 1980s. If Columbia pursues the city-owned buildings it will have to pay their market value purchase price as well as negotiate "an equitable resolution for the tenants that at least equals what they would receive through the TIL program," notes Neill Coleman, spokesperson for the housing agency. This will be a very expensive proposition.

ONE MAN'S BLIGHT...
Columbia argues that Manhattanville is "blighted," a condition that automatically allows the state to exercise eminent domain. It insists that its goal is to "transform what is now a largely isolated, underutilized streetscape of garage openings, empty ground floors, roll-down metal gates and chain-link fences on the blocks from West 125th to 133rd Streets into a cohesive, reanimated center for educational, commercial and community life."

Ester Fuchs, a Professor of International and Public Affairs and Political Science at Columbia, is right when she argues, "The health of the city historically has always been about neighborhood transformation. For neighborhoods to stay the same is a recipe for a stagnant city."

(©Julia Vitullo-Martin)

But healthy transformations in American cities have generally been more successfully accomplished by homeowners, restaurateurs, retailers, and small business owners acting individually rather than by huge institutions exercising the governmentís power of eminent domain. Columbia desires a contiguous campus—but that may well produce a less interesting streetscape than what would derive from a mix of academic buildings and private businesses.

And there are many who argue that the neighborhood is already on its way back. They point to the artists' studios and lofts, the rehabilitated city-owned apartment buildings, the good restaurants, the successful manufacturing firms as proof that the neighborhood, far from blighted, is experiencing a natural renaissance. "I can co-exist with Columbia," says Sprayregen. "Why can't Columbia coexist with me? My father built this business, which I intend to hand onto my children. We worked hard for the neighborhood, and intend to be part of its success."

Sprayregen fully understands the irony of his situation. He operates a business in a neighborhood whose long, slow decline has been caused in part by the dead hand of industrial zoning—imposed by city government. Now that same municipally imposed decline may be pronounced "blight" by the state, triggering the loss of his property. "This is blight forced on the neighborhood by city regulations," he notes. "But despite its zoning, the neighborhood is far better off now than itís ever been. Yet Columbia, ironically, is claiming itís so terrible and so blighted."

WHAT’S NEXT
(©Julia Vitullo-Martin) The crucial blight assessment that the state will use to determine if eminent domain can be invoked is being conducted by AKRF, an environmental consulting firm that is also drawing up the Draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS) for Columbia. This is unusual, and raises obvious questions about the independence of the blight assessment. The certification of the DEIS by the Department of City Planning will start the Uniform Land Use Review Procedure (ULURP) that will move Columbiaís proposal through a seven-month community review.

Neither Columbia nor City Planning is willing to estimate when the plan will enter ULURP beyond "spring." Once City Planning certifies that the application is complete and ready for public review, the plan will move to Community Board 9, which already has its own competing proposals for Manhattanville. CB 9 will have 60 days to hold hearings and adopt a recommendation to the City Planning Commission. The hearings are likely to be fierce, unruly, and informative. The plan will also be reviewed by the Manhattan Borough President, the City Planning Commission, and the City Council, which has the final say—unless the Mayor decides to veto a council action.

 


March 2007
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