Thursday, September 27, 2007

Negotiated Surrender

Yesterday, as expected, Manhattan BP Scott Stringer lived up to his deal with the mayor, and agreed to support the Columbia expansion plan-with little of community benefit to show for his willing acquiescence. What he did get out of the deal was good for Scott; he gets to point with some degree of exaggerated pride to the city's support for the rezoning plan that he has put forward as an answer to the anticipated Columbia-generated widespread dislocation in the West Harlem community.

It is, however, way too little to show for his efforts. As Matt Schuerman of the Observer pointed out, the $20 million that Columbia has pledged to support affordable housing is a cruel joke when juxtaposed against the dislocation that the the university's own consultants envision will be generated by the massive gentrification impacts of the plan. As Scheurman observes:

"Some $20 million will be devoted to an affordable housing fund that will partially offset the indirect displacement that the new campus is expected to cause outside the footprint.
But given the fact that it costs, conservatively, somewhere around $400,000, and sometimes as much as $1 million, to build an affordable apartment in Manhattan, the contribution would only go so far in alleviating the indirect displacement. The draft environmental impact statement, for instance, says that “
approximately 3,293” nearby residents would be forced out because of gentrification."

So what the BP has failed to do is to draw a principled line in the sand, something that would have been reflective of true leadership on behalf of a beleaguered community that has been looking for a righteous defender. Instead, just two days after Lee Bollinger acquiesces to an Iranian nutcase, Stringer acquiesces to Bollinger and becomes the midwife for the gentrification that he claims to be so concerned about.

Here's Stringer's comment on all of this sleight-of-hand: “This is a win-win for Columbia,” said Stringer. “It's a win for West Harlem, and quite frankly it's a win for all of New York City. Columbia's expansion will keep it at the forefront of higher education and scientific research. While it becomes an active partner with the community, we can be assured that binging affordable housing and jobs, sustainable development and economic opportunity is something that we will have to continue to strive for."

Notice the interesting circumlocution here? Columbia gets its expansion, but everything else is put in the "continue to strive for" category. It's a classic buying of a pig-in-a-poke, with Stringer acting as the auctioneer. Let's face it, Stringer, when confronted with the Columbia behemoth, simply blinked-afraid to tackle the university and its plan head-on. Where will the affordable housing be built. What good will the $20 million be if no space is set aside in the 18 acre footprint? Isn't this the real "player to be named later" that the baseball executives talk about?

It all reminds of of Popeye's Wimpy, who would always tell the sailor: "I'd gladly pay you Tuesday for a hamburger today." In this case, it is Columbia getting the hamburger today, while it is West Harlem that will be continually waiting to see if Tuesday will ever come.

Let's hope, as the Times reports this morning, that the deal making is not yet done: "Yesterday, some Harlem officials said the agreement by Columbia was a good-faith effort to begin discussions about the project and its impact." If this is so, we can only hope that the next negotiation phase will be led by those who understand that Columbia needs to truly modify its plan if the community benefits are to have real substance.