Sunday, July 22, 2007

Columbia's Lion Eyes

In today's City Section of the NY Times, the paper takes a long look at the expansion plans of Columbia University. The most incisive parts of the article deal with the fears of local residents that they will be priced out of the neighborhood once the "swells" start to crowd out the old neighborhood stalwarts. As long time resident Luisa Henriquez told the Times; "'They want us out here...'They want it all.'"

The university, of course, sees things quite differently-envisioning scientific breakthroughs in an area where currently you only hear the sounds of car engines being tuned. As the university's spokeswoman says; "'Columbia wants to work on the kinds of issues that impact humanity, like Alzheimer's and Parkinson's disease...'"

Why not throw in a cure for cancer while you're waxing poetic here? The issue, however isn't-or at least doesn't have to be-a zero-sum game between a beautiful new campus for Columbia and the preservation of local business and residents. It is only this way because the university makes it so. As Ms. Henriquez says, "'Columbia should work around us...They say that everything is for the students, for the students. What about us?'"

In addition, the vision that Columbia is seeking to impose on West Harlem (Manhattanville is the name the university chooses to use; the neighborhood sees itself as West Harlem) excludes other equally. or even more compelling uses. So, while some merchants welcome the change-and the new business it might bring; "...others in Manhattanville are unsure, and still others are strongly opposed, saying that the university is charging into Manhattanville just as the neighborhood begins to perk up, that they will be priced out of the revamped area and that other initiatives, like building affordable housing, are much more compelling."

Unfortunately, aside from a brief side bar discussion of our own Nick Sprayregen, we never get to meet these others-leaving the erroneous impression that Sir Nick is the lone white knight here, battling Columbia in order to preserve his own business interests. This is, of course, far from the truth; it excludes from the discussion the critical role of CB#9, the community's 197-a plan that is an alternative to the university's vision, and the actions of the Coalition to Preserve Community, a coalition of scores of local groups who are opposed to the expansion plan.

This is particularly remiss because the article does go into a rather lengthy discussion of the historic university gymnasium controversy that roiled this neighborhood in 1968. If this battle is, as the university spokeswoman suggests, a "shadow" that still hangs over Columbia's current plan, than the nature of the current opposition-aside from that of Nick Sprayregen-needs to be properly laid out for the Times readers. It isn't, and we are left with only Sprayregen-and even he is juxtaposed against another businessman-not a property owner-who welcomes Columbia's expansion (the fact that he is a lease holder and Columbia is his landlord may just color his observation somewhat).

The article also excludes any meaningful discussion of the private university's role in the taking of local properties, or the questionable role of AKRF, the consultants who are representing both Columbia in the land use process, and the state in the condemnation process-a clear conflict of interest. It doesn't discuss the role of the $40,000 a month man Bill Lynch, Columbia's point man in all of this.

In spite of its shortcomings, the Times piece does accurately capture the sense of foreboding and the fear of displacement that the Columbia expansion effort generates in the local community. The article ends with an anecdote about a tour bus coming through the neighborhood, and the observation of a local woman; ""'They're shopping for property.'"

In the end, as it always is does Manhattan, it all comes down to property. The university, a non-tax paying institution, is going to try to use the land use process and the eminent domain process to gobble up as much property as it can. Whatever benefits the community sees will only come after the main course is served. That is, unless other variables are introduced here that allow for changes in the ubber-vision of the university. Stay tuned-don't leave the gym until the final whistle blows.