Wednesday, August 01, 2007

Columbia's Lynch Hired to Weed the Garden

In his continuing focus on the Columbia University expansion effort, The Observer's Matt Scheurman takes a look today at the role of former Deputy Mayor Bil Lynch. It seems that Lynch, being paid $40,000 a month according to published reports, has been busy organizing his own grass roots coalition of employees and alumni of Columbia-as well as those who, "are supportive of the expansion because of the jobs they have heard about..."

All of which is well and good, because no one has denied that there are potential benefits inherent in the university's expansion. It is, however, somewhat beside the point since the real community concern has been in the all or nothing approach that the university has taken; as well as in the way in which Columbia, unlike Forest City Ratner in Brooklyn, has refrained from engaging the community in direct negotiations.

Which brings us to the issue of this WHLDC-a Trojan Horse in development. How many months has this entity labored? Not since Horton Hatches a Who has so much effort gone into an effort with so little to show for it. From our vantage point it looks like the classic Ali "Rope-a-Dope" strategy. You'd think by now that the LDC would have been able to devise 4 or 5 basic demands for the university.

And what are the electeds doing on the Board? The role of elected officials in a land use struggle is to act as honest brokers on behalf of the community, especially when a number of them will have to vote on the plan when it comes to them-either at the Borough Board or at the City Council. Even Adolfo Carrion didn't place himself on the negotiating team in the ill-conceived Gateway Mall CBA-while trying to steer the negotiations into a direction that he was comfortable with. Do you think that the presence of these officials might be one reason that the LDC has done very little?

The Lynch effort is, however, extremely interesting. What we do know is that the community opposition, as today's Newsday/AP story highlights, didn't coalesce as a result of any outside organizing; it has always been both genuine and passionate. So who will represent the Lynchites? Clearly, they will be folks who up until this time had no reason to voice support for Columbia's expansion.

Their entry into the conversation, then, would seem to require a catalyst; and with all due respect to Lynch, it can't be his good looks and charm that will be doing the pump priming. It is clearly a "Jerry McGuire" moment for the Lynch acolytes. Yet, what this creates, it seems to us, is a parallel negotiating process-an official one that involves the LDC, and an unofficial effort that is being spearheaded by Columbia's consultant.

If we were to bet here, we'd have to make Lynch the favorite to come out on top, since he is the one who represents Columbia and has its ear. If so, where does that leave the LDC? If we are right about the classic diversionary strategy in play here, it means that, in the final analysis, the LDC will adopt a platform that is in reality advanced by none other than Bill Lynch. In this kind of a dishonest process Jesse Masyr and Susan Russell are the quintessential midwives.

Will the results reflect genuine community interest? Given the structure of the process, and the role Lynch is playing, this is highly unlikely. In our view, the main community concern is the intertwined need for affordable housing and the fear of gentrification. Yet the Columbia plan completely avoids both sides of this equation-and don't expect to find a large contingent of housing advocates in Lynch's grass garden.

The bottom line in all of this is that no amount of weeding by Bill Lynch can change the fact that the university will, directly and indirectly, be displacing hundreds, if not thousands of low-income Harlem residents; and no amount of jawboning by Columbia about relocating those evicted should be taken with anything but the proverbial grain of salt.

In addition, with no negotiations or identifiable destinations identified up until this point, isn't it premature for Bob Jackson to be praising the university without qualification for agreeing to not use eminent domain to evict these tenants? Is there an agreement that we're not aware of? What if the tenants don't want to move from the neighborhood many have lived in for decades? The Columbia agreement, without any tenant assent to be moved, is pure smoke and mirrors; and praise from the elected officials here is redolent of bad faith.