Sunday, May 27, 2007

Fearing Columbia?

In today's City Section of the NY Times, former mayor David Dinkins, and current Columbia employee, weighs-in in favor of the university's expansion plan. In the vacuous style that we have become accustomed to, the former mayor, in an editorial titled Don't Fear Columbia, fails to deal with the two contentious issues that have roiled opponents: the use of eminent domain and the lack of any housing in the expansion footprint.

The issue is not about some generic fear, but of the nature of the university's expansion and its potential impact on existing residents and businesses. But specificity has never been a Dinkins strong suit, and neither has intellectual rigor. The important question is: Can the Columbia plan be made better? And if so, in what way?

These key questions aren't addressed by the Columbia's paid flack, and so all we are left with is platitudinous statements like, "Columbia University's the perfect example of a change that will generate growth and benefit all." Well it won't benefit the four hundred or so low-income residents of the Till Houses, or the property owners who will be forced out if their buildings are taken through the use of eminent domain.

Nor will it benefit the Harlem residents who will be forced to deal with the potential after effects of the university's gentrification of the 18 acre property. The former mayor, writing in prose that are best suited for some third rate PR brochure, goes on to observe that he appreciates "the concerns that some Harlem residents may have about the university's plans." What concerns Dave? Why not list and attempt to address them, rather than blather in a pseudo-sympathetic mode that is utilized merely to appear sensitive, while avoiding the need to actually be so.

Dinkins goes on to detail the numerous ways in which Columbia does interact in a positive way with the local community-from health clinics to tutoring programs. No one, however, is arguing that the university doesn't do some good for the local community, and that it doesn't have some important city wide benefits as well. The issue here, once again is, does this particular expansion plan provide the best possible use for the 18 acres? And is it necessary for Columbia, in an all-or-nothing fashion, to take away people's property in the process?

Our feeling is that the deabte over Columbia's expansion is best focused on some of the key issues we have mentioned, and should not be conducted by "professors of public affairs" whose record in office gives scant comfort in the acuity of their observations about public policy. No one fears Columbia, Dave. The fears that do exist concern an expansion plan that fails to "benefit all New Yorkers" as much as it does the university itself.