Monday, July 02, 2007

Columbia's Questionable Advisors

It now appears that the rush to certify the Columbia expansion plan had an additional rationale; besides the usual need to go full speed ahead in order to save money on construction costs. What just may have been prompting the breakneck speed approach, before any real negotiations have begun between the university and the community, is the law suit that was brought by the West Harlem Business Association (our client, Tuck-it-Away, is a member).

The law suit targeted all of the communications between AKRK, a land use consulting firm, and the Empire State Development Corporation (ESDC). The reason for the suit was to challenge the legitimacy of the use of AKRF as a consultant for ESDC in the preparation of the state's requisite blight study; a mandated precursor to any condemnation proceeding.

Now it turns out that AKRF's talents are quite protean. The firm is not only doing the state's blight study, it is also representing the party that wants to condemn the West Harlem real estate-none other than Columbia the gem of the ocean. In its legal defense AKRF told the court that this apparent conflict wasn't really any problem since it had constructed a "Chinese Wall" within the company-something that, understandably so, Judge Kornreeich didn't find to be very credible.

Why is this so important? It is so because the blight study is what the state and Columbia will rely on to defend themselves against the inevitable litigation should the use of eminent domain be utilized to evict the West Harlem property owners. It is further crucial since the so-called blight will be determined for an area where Columbia itself has taken over the vast percentage of all of the extant property-and has purposefully allowed it all to deteriorate.

It is also important because of how it throws into sharp relief all of the supposed independent consulting work that has become integral to the city's land use review process. It underscores the extent to which there has never, ever, been any real independent review of environmental data submitted to the city; nor has the city ever properly reviewed any of the data proffered by those looking to develop.

ULURP is, and has always been, a political process with an environmental veneer, and it is high time that the entire charade be reformed. Perhaps the Columbia collusion will become the impetus for just such a reform.