Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Columbia and the Community Benefits of Expansion

The Observer's Matt Schuerman does his usual thorough job in this week's edition of the paper, in discussing the various ramifications of the proposal by Columbia's to expand into West Harlem. In particular, he focuses on the tricky nature of trying to negotiate a community benefits agreement in the middle of a land-use application.

Equally tricky is the attempt to do so while the issue of eminent domain is part of the discussion. At least 12% of the property in the path of the development is privately held. President Bollinger makes an interesting point in this regard when he tells the Observer, "'In my view, it would be irresponsible to take eminent domain off of the table...'I don't know if we wil ask for it-I hope not-but certainly I think that, when there is an economic interest that is standing in the way of a public purpose, like major work on the brain that may cure diseases like Alzheimer's, I think we should be in a position to use it or call for its use."

Well, when Bollinger puts it that way, how could anyone place the interests of a storage company over a cure for Alzheimer's? Of course, one could also say that the Columbia president was being unfairly invidious, particularly since the university's expansion is not a zero-sum game between "an economic interest" and some miracle medical breakthrough. As one of our college professors once told us, "The truth is usually somewhere in between."

The issue of the CBA will definitely be a tricky one; although we were intrigued by the way that the chair of Board #9 derided the AY CBA. Well, we'll see if this collection of folks on the LDC will rise to greater heights than the "set of local sychophants" in Prospect Heights. Given its composition however, and the participation of the local elected officials, we can say that the jury is still out on this.

The real lightening rod in the expansion may not even be over the ED issue. Rather, the question of affordable housing seems more likely to generate controversy here. As Schuerman points out, the university is planning to "displace" (is this like redeployment?) 132 "ethnically diverse" tenants; and promises them equal or superior lodging. All well and good, but the fact remains that the Columbia plan has no housing component, and without one it is hard to be as sanguine as Bollinger that his plan will encompass "what the communities would like to see."