Wednesday, October 03, 2007

Sun Spots Flaws in Columbia's Expansion

In yesterday's NY Sun the paper did what no other outlet has yet done: it took a strong stand for property rights, and questioned whether the Columbia expansion merited the use of eminent domain. As it said: "The expansion would make Columbia a world scale university and seal its place as one of the city's crown jewels, but the university's refusal to rule out asking the city or state to use eminent domain to clear the way for its expansion has made a lot of us wonder whether it's worth the price in terms of the potential damage to property rights in Manhattan."

The importance of the Sun's editorial stance here lies in the way in which the paper questions why it is necessary for the university to resort to taking other people's property when other developers in Manhattan have been able to aggregate large parcels of land through normal acquisition processes. In addition, the Sun points out-as we have on numerous occasions-how other elite universities have managed to expand without bulldozing property rights. Columbia, however, really couldn't be bothered with an effort to collaborate with its neighbors.

And the Sun goes beyond pointing out how Harvard successfully manged to aggregate 200 acres up in Alston without condemnation; it shows how NYU has been able to go into the private real estate market and expand in a neighborhood that is far pricier than West Harlem. Yet CU wails that it would be too expensive and time consuming to refrain from the use of eminent domain; to which the Sun responds: "For Columbia, with its roughly $6 billion endowment, to bewail the city's high land costs and despair of buying Manhattan property on the open market is an ironical turn."

Which brings us to the issue of community benefit. When BP Stringer folded like a cheap suit on the expansion proposal, hiding behind a zoning plan that may have a mitigating impact only if our life spans suddenly and dramatically increase, our main critique was that the Stringer Spaniel didn't ask anything of the university that would mitigate its expansion in the present tense-something tangible in the here and now. What's compelling in the Columbia plan that makes the use of eminent domain an absolute necessity?

It's certainly not its job creation, since most of the immediate community won't be able to benefit because of education and skill levels. Is it the potential cure for Alzheimer's, something that Bollinger has been touting? Even allowing for hyperbole on the president's part, it hard to see just how this speculative scientific breakthrough demands that the university take away the properties of local business owners.

In our view, and we've said it on numerous occasions, the use of eminent domain requires that the community payoff be extraordinary-thousands of units of decent housing would be a consideration in this regard. But Columbia sits back and really offers nothing, expecting that a supine political class will obediently do its bidding.

We shall see. When a concrete proposal that will benefit the community is put on the table-and it will be put-the integrity of local electeds will be put to the test in what we always describe as the "golden opportunity to fail." If, however, the labor movement gets behind the effort, the failure will mean the premature retirement of the pusillanimous. Now that's a failure that the office holder will seek to avoid at all costs. Stay tuned.