Monday, September 24, 2007

NY Times' Half Measures

In yesterday's editorial in the City Section, the NY Times correctly points out that Columbia has done precious little to gain the confidence or support of its neighbors in West Harlem for the university's ambitious expansion plan. Here is the editorial at its most cogent: "And while Columbia has worked hard to accommodate residents, including finding replacement housing for those who would be displaced as it builds, more is needed to reassure the neighbors, particularly those who have not been impressed by the school’s promises of thousands of new jobs or by its deepening ties to the community."

The editorial goes on to say that the city is "recognizing the rift" and is doing so by taking a long look at the zoning plan proposed by BP Scott Stringer. And while we certainly support Stringer's efforts to deal with direct and indirect displacement of the area;'s residents we have already pointed out that the Stringer plan, in dealing with the Columbia aftershocks, doesn't deal directly with the impact of the plan itself.

In particular, as the Times highlights, gentrification is a major threat here: "Even those who live outside the university’s expansion area fear the spillover effects of new growth that could push them out, a prospect already faced by residents in other parts of the city where rents have risen with gentrification." Yet, curiously, the paper doesn't suggest any specific modification to the Columbia plan that would deal directly with the displacement issue.

Which is why the adoption of the Stringer plan needs to be seen as part of an overall comprehensive solution that includes the university's commitment to affordable housing and the negotiation with key property owners to swap land in order to build these kinds of units. In essence, the plan itself needs to be modified-and after that, the after-effects must be prepared for.

The Times is right that; "Columbia’s efforts to win over its neighbors have been hampered by the reputation for aloof detachment it helped create a generation ago and has been trying to live down ever since." The way to remedy this, is to treat the community with respect, take its demands seriously, and come up with a plan that engages the key community issues.

Contrary to what the Times says, the Stringer plan alone is not the compromise that "could give Columbia the room it needs to remain a first-class university and the neighborhood residents the assurances they need that their lives will not suffer." A more comprehensive solution needs to be crafted, and the Stringer proposal is just a good first step.