Sunday, August 12, 2007

There Goes the Neighborhood

We have been commenting on the unavoidable impact that the expansion of Columbia University will have on the immediate and surrounding neighborhoods. These impacts are so serious that, as Matthew Scheurman highlights, even the house consultants for the university are forced to point out that, "approximately 3,293 residents of the surrounding area are vulnerable to 'indirect displacement' due to upward rent pressure.'"

This is what is known in the parlance of the EIS as a "significant and adverse impact," and from what we know about these particular Columbia consultants, we'd bet that this analysis is skewed to the conservative side-with adverse impacts affecting a good many more residents than those thousands cited in the study. It's why BP Stringer has introduced his zoning protection plan, a measure aimed at slowing the tide of gentrification that he feels the CU expansion will unleash.

In today's NY Post, the paper goes into greater depth on what is already in the works in the Harlem neighborhoods in and around the footprint of Columbia's expansion. If you are a low-income tenant or a neighborhood retailer the picture isn't very pretty. Scores of local businesses, many who have been in Harlem for decades, have already been jettisoned, or are facing eviction shortly.

One such business, Bobby's Happy House-a Harlem music shop fixture-has been in the neighborhood for 61 years. As the granddaughter of the owner told the Post; "To tear this building down would essentially be to tear Harlem apart." And as the Post goes on to point out: "While developers tout plans for hotels, condominiums, office space and national retailers, local businesses are being left behind..." As the owner of the Record Shack on 125th Street says, "This is the economic lynching of the community, and it's not right."

Which brings us back to Columbia and its self-motivated expansion plan. The university, unlike the commercial developers who are descending like rapacious locusts on the changing Harlem community, is supposed to be motivated by a soupcon of public interest; after all, it's led by a First Amendment scholar who prides himself on defending the great American democratic traditions.

When it comes to real estate, however, CU is just another avaricious land owner. The displacement question is one that should be addressed by elected officials; instead they are chasing after Nick Sprayregen in a classic example of misfeasance and misdirection. Stop trying to create a classic red herring and open your eyes! Thousands of people are going to be thrown out of their homes and businesses while you are looking to suckle on the university teat.

The only issue that should be on the table for all of the area's elected officials is the threat of massive displacement and the disappearance of affordable housing. The "Housing Trust Fund" concept that CU has been floating is meaningless if not accompanied by actual brick and mortar-real housing being built for the people of the West Harlem community.

If it isn't, where exactly will the current residents go to live? Perhaps, the electeds agree with one of the commentators to the Real Estate blog at the Observer who said: "I am so tired of hearing about the poor being displaced in Manhattan. 'Let them live in the Bronx'..." Sounds like one of Bill Lynch's new coalition folks.

Columbia is asking the city and the state to act as its own private bulldozer. Isn't it incumbent on the elected representatives to hold the university accountable for its unavoidable displacement of long-time residents and shop owners? Instead, we get the scapegoating charade that wants to portray one business owner who doesn't want to submit to the bulldozer as the proverbial "enemy of the people." The charade must stop!