CU has a bad attitude!
COLUMBIA'S BAD ATTITUDE
By JORDI REYES-MONTBLANC
November 27, 2006 -- COLUMBIA University wants to expand its Morningside Heights campus into the adjacent area of West Manhattanville, damn the torpedoes. Well, torpedoes is exactly what the university's trustees will find if they attempt to shove their views down the throats of area residents.
Columbia is a great institution, with a genuine need to expand - but it should have a better understanding of and empathy for the surrounding community.
For almost 20 years, our community - represented by Community Board 9 Manhattan (CB9) - worked, with input from Columbia, among many others, to develop a plan that gives form and substance to our diverse community's desires. This plan would allow Columbia to expand but without displacing other successful elements of the community. The quality of life would be enhanced for the whole of the CB9M district, which runs from West 110th Street to West 155th Street and from roughly St. Nicholas Avenue to the Hudson River, including our three historic neighborhoods of Morningside Heights, Manhattanville and Hamilton Heights.
But now Columbia's seeking to overturn that plan. It has targeted 17 acres for its expansion - but it has not been able to buy every property. So the university has gone to the Empire State Economic Development Corp. and paid $300,000 to produce a blight study. The plain intent is to paint a grim picture that will lead to condemnation, the exercise of eminent domain and the conveying of all properties within the 17-acre area to the university. All but three buildings in the parcel would be torn down. (The university also has requested the rezoning of another 18 acres in the area, a move that residents suspect would lead to even more expansion down the road.)
Within the 17 targeted acres are a number of apartment buildings and many small businesses, which employ more than 1,100 people - mostly district residents now threatened with loss and displacement.
Families that have run businesses in West Manhattanville for generations are now subject to pressure to sell - pressure so strong that many call it harassment. Some have already sold out - fearing that they'd wind up with far less if Columbia does get the state to use eminent domain to force sales.
Yet an impartial study would show that the only blight in West Manhattanville is thanks to Columbia. For years, the university has been acquiring properties, then leaving them to stand vacant or underused. Existing businesses in and near those buildings have closed and moved out.
Columbia's heavy-handed tactics and demand for eminent domain have antagonized the community. Residents' best hope now is that the public-review process will be independent of any political influences Columbia can bring into play. Any possible changes to CB9's original plan will go through the same open, public and participatory deliberations used to create the plan.
Columbia has stated that it wants a "partnership with the community." The community would welcome a partnership of equals. We will not be a minority partner and even less a silent partner. We shall be equal partners or no partners at all.
Jordi Reyes-Montblanc is chairman of Community Board 9 Manhattan.