Monday, November 26, 2007

Swap Spitting Contest

Last week in the Spectator the paper ruminates about the proposed land swap plan put forward by property owner Nick Sprayregen. A number of interesting observations are brought forth in the story, chief among them is the university's public willingness to talk about the idea: "Columbia Senior Executive Vice President Robert Kasdin expressed his willingness to negotiate if Sprayregen were to propose his land swap to the University. “Columbia looks forward to hearing more directly from him,” Kasdin said."

Very interesting. The university would be wise to do so, since it will afford it the opportunity to generate considerable political good will. Right now, with the City Planning Commission on tap today-and a robust community protest expected to great its expected rubber stamp approval-Columbia is taking its lumps.

The most serious Achilles heal in the expansion proposal is the total lack of any housing in the 18 acre footprint of the development. Columbia has stressed that it wants to be involved in the building of affordable housing, but it doesn't appear that the university has seriously went out of its way to identify any actual locations to do it. The creation of a "Housing Trust Fund," without any identified build area, starts to take on the appearance of a sinister scam; one that belies any serious intention on the university's part to do any good for the locals facing displacement.

Therefore, the Sprayregen swap plan has the potential to be of all around utility: Nick gets to keep his property; the university gets rid of its strongest critic, someone who has the potential to delay its expansion; and the community gets around 1,000 units of housing. Oh, and the Bloomberg administration gets another notch on its five year plan for affordable housing-something that it needs since it is apparently falling short of its laudable goals.

Of course, all of this depends on the promulgation of a plan that is both economically and politically sound. The Spectator comments on the fact that Columbia and Sprayregen have yet to talk: "Yet Sprayregen still has not directly presented his proposed property trade to Columbia. He explained that the idea has been “out there” for a while and that the University’s lack of response “shows their utter belligerence and lack of desire to compromise.”
But Columbia spokesperson La-Verna Fountain emphasized that representatives have been in touch with Sprayregen and his family for years. She explained that Columbia has not responded to the property exchange proposal because it is against University policy to negotiate through the press."

It's really unclear whether Columbia is serious about negotiating with Sprayregen, but its public comments do indicate that there may be a decent opening to do so. The need for a well thought-out plan, however, must come first since Sprayregen's labor allies want to get a feel for the feasibility of the effort before climbing on board. This key aspect of the potential swap negotiation is now underway-and a solid outline of a building plan should be ready in a week or so.

Once this happens, serious multi-sided discussions-involving Sprayregen, labor, Columbia and key political decision makers-will take place as the ULURP clock moves into its final phase. In these kinds of things very little happens until the eleventh hour.

What are we to make, though, of the public comments of one Reggie Williams, central casting's answer to Al Sharpton. Williams has been recruited to be the community face for Columbia's expansion, and has taken on the role of Sprayregen-baiter. As he told the Spectator: "Reverend Reggie Williams of the Coalition for the Future of Manhattanville, a pro-expansion group organized by lobbyists for Columbia, called Sprayregen’s proposed land trade an “eleventh hour swap,” and cited it as evidence that Sprayregen is trying to circumvent the development process."

Well, what to make of this nonsense? Sprayregen's trying to "circumvent" a process that has, as one of its essential features, the taking of the property that his family has owned for over three decades. Shame on Nick! Williams is acting here as Columbia's Repo man; except for the fact that the property in question doesn't belong to Columbia.

Williams goes on to question whether Sprayregen is representing the community's interests; while never questioning the extent to which the university's expansion effort is thinly disguised self-aggrandisement. Of course, in trying to save his property Nick is acting in his own economic interest-just as Columbia's doing.

The only question here is how can the CU plan better reflect the over all good of the greatest number of West Harlem residents. What Sprayregen is proposing is an opportunity for the university to complement its expansion effort with an additional aspect that addresses a crucial community need. If it does, and we believe so, than the negotiations should begin as soon as the Sprayregen plan is ready for a full unveiling.