Thursday, August 30, 2007

Booing Bollinger, Holding Columbia Accountable

At a recent meeting of CB9 Columbia University president Lee Bollinger, along with ex-mayor David Dinkins, were booed by an irate community for their support of the university's expansion into West Harlem. In today's NY Daily News columnist Errol Louis takes umbrage with the reception and sees the disrespect as part of an unwieldy land use review process that he labels the "Gulliver Gambit": "pretending to support progress, but only if the developer agrees to attach a thousand tiny strings to a big project."

Which, we believe, is an unfair view of the process and reduces complexity to what amounts to a simplistic description of a more complex reality. What this all comes down to is the nature of the project in question, and what kind of impact a development may have on the community and/or the smaller businesses in the area.

In spite of what Errol implies, not all large development projects are benign. The Gateway Mall in the Bronx, for instance, can be seen as a sweetheart deal that one city official steered to his good friend-at the expense of the economic health of smaller business, and the environmental health of the community. Does a community protest in this instance lack righteousness when area electeds sheepishly refuse to stand up for local community interests?

So to focus exclusively on process is a mistake. If the community isn't able to make its voice heard there is always a distinct possibility that behind-the-scenes maneuvers can end up being deleterious to the neighborhoods. The ULURP process, then, allows an irate community to express its views-under the assumption that more sunshine (not Ken, however) is needed in order for area elected officials to truly understand how a community feels.

In the end, there is no such thing as a Gulliver Gambit, because the strings attached have no weight in the negotiating process-one that is in the exclusive purview of area elected officials. In the Columbia case, the fact remains that the booing Bollinger received, as the NY Post editorialized this morning, should be seen as a wake up call for the university to negotiate, something that Bollinger himself has now stated publicly.

And negotiating in good faith is something that Errol Louis also properly endorses: "Such complaints are a distraction from the real deal making that needs to take place." The complaints and the raucousness, however, are sometimes a necessary ingredient to get the mule's attention.

Which brings us to the proposal being floated by Nick Sprayregen. As Louis points out, "In particular, there's a proposal by Harlem businessman Nick Sprayregen that deserves more attention: the deal would swap Sprayregen's businesses on the west side of Broadway for Columbia's property on the east side, where Sprayregen would build up to 1,000 units of affordable housing."

As this concept of our client Tuck-it-Away becomes clearer, we'll see just how much the university is willing to bargain in good faith. But we will agree with Louis that, "New York is long overdue for a new set of land use regulations." Until that happens, however, the strident voice of the community remains an important way for keeping developers, and the elected officials who may slavishly support them, accountable for their actions.