Wednesday, September 05, 2007

Swapping Unilateralism

The Columbia expansion proposal has been attacked mercilesssly by the community of West Harlem. One of the biggest criticisms has been that the university has no concrete plans for building of any affordable housing in a community that not only desparately needs it, but is also afraid that it will be swept aside by the gentrification that the CU expansion is bound to generate. Into this "our way or the highway" approach comes Nick Sprayregen, a local property owner who we have been advising since the first of the year.

As the Observer Real Estate Blog reports, and as Errol Lous had mentioned last week in passing, Sprayregen is willing to swap the bulk of his holdings west of Broadway for properties that Columbia owns on the east side, with the idea of using the east side properties to build 1,000 units of mostly affordable housing. Now, keep in mind that the main interest of the university is to have a continguous campus footprint, something that the proposed swap would allow to happen-especially if Nick can persuade the other property owners to join with him in his bold proposal. It would appear, then, that this innovative idea could, if people of good will can come together, be the "win, win, win," situation that Sprayregen sees it as.

In addition, the Sprayregen proposal also has the potential to remove the legally contentious-and to the university time consuming-issue of eminent domain from the table, another aspect of the Columbia plan that has roiled community opposition. It would seem to be in the university's interest to find a way to reach out to Nick on this, especially since it has been publicly proclaiming its willingness to engage its opponents.

The swap idea also has the potential to address the concerns that are encompassed in the zoning proposal advanced by Manhattan BP Stringer. The BP is worried, as he should be, that the university's billion dollars worth of expansion will create an inexorable wave that will sweep out many of the area's long time residents.

As we have argued, however, the way to mitigate the CU wave is to have the university invest in affordable housing as part of its main re-zoning plan-something that all major developers have been asked to do by a city that has made affordable housing a key policy goal. This is something that the university says it is coming around to doing.

If Columbia is sincere then there is much that can be accomplished here. In particular, Sprayregen's swap concept provides an actual venue where housing could be built. It is an area that already has similar sized residential units all along the Broadway corridor. With the aid of a Columbia housing trust all 1,000 units of proposed housing could be made affordable-and the community would score a big win at the same time that Sprayregen gets to maintain his property rights.

It's time for Columbia, and its allies among area elected officials, to step up and put their money where their mouth is. There are 18 acres eyed by the university's expansion; the Sprayregen proposal would target only 5% of this devlopment footprint. If CU can't see the benefit, than someone with the necessary clout needs to step forward and let them know that the time to sit down is now.