Monday, September 29, 2008

Columbia's Lebensraum

The CU Spectator has a fascinating story about the ESDC/Columbia expansion plan that was recently released. A key point raised in the document is the fact that eminent domain will not be used to evict any resident-at least until after 2018! "The plan’s line on 20 years ahead states, “ESDC would not use its eminent domain power to acquire possession of any legal residential unit prior to 2018.” University officials have consistently stated that Columbia will not seek to acquire any residential properties in the Manhattanville campus footprint through eminent domain—the state’s power to seize private land for the public good."

And after that date? What we've been saying all along-and the handwriting on the wall is right in the environmental review statement prepared for the university-is that the expansion will led to a massive displacement of area residents; some 5,000 folks, as the EIS states very clearly.

But now we're looking at something much more significant-and sinister: a massive removal so that Columbia attains the kind of gentrified lebensraum that it has always sought-never mind it's progressive political posturing: “We never were aware of these dates,” said State Senator Bill Perkins (D-Harlem), who later added, “The fact that they have such a date out there is scaring folks.” This fear has been voiced at recent hearings on the Manhattanville expansion. Community members have focused on whether the ESDC would be justified in using eminent domain to seize private commercial properties in the area and give them to the University so Columbia can build its campus according to the already-approved construction plan."

All of which makes the current Sprayregen lawsuit that much more important-it strikes at the heart of not only a legal monstrosity, but also at the core of the survival of West Harlem; because once Columbia begins its inexorable march you can be sure it will be scorched earth. And even some of the plan's supporters are, as they should, getting nervous: "ESDC Communications Director Warner Johnston explained that the 2018 date is “something we came up with, with Columbia. The project was approved and expressed that they would have 10 years to work with the remaining residents.” Despite the surprise expressed by Sen. Perkins and others, Johnston said, “It’s not a new date.” “We’re trying to understand what the GPP means,” said WHLDC member Susan Russell, who is also chief of staff for City Councilman Robert Jackson (D-Washington Heights and West Harlem). “We want to make sure that nobody gets kicked out.”

Maybe a little late for that concern, but hopefully the clear and present danger will provoke the supportive elected officials to take remedial action before it's too late. One approach that makes sense is for Council Members Jackson and Dickens, is to try to jump start the negotiations between Sprayregn and CU on the swap plan that could generate hundreds of new housing units; after all, there is no new housing in the expansion footprint.

In any event there's no real indication that Columbia has any clear vision of what a university partnership might look like. In this regard the comments of VP Kasdin take on the coloration of farce: “I think there needs to be a shift in the discussion from the notion that Columbia is involved in a transaction to the notion that Columbia has a long-standing relationship. ... Columbia, unlike a private developer, will be in this community and concerned with the health of this community long after construction is complete.”

Without any housing initiative-and in the face of likely widespread residential displacement, both direct and indirect-the Columbia expansion will likely leave the university without any community to partner with.