Thursday, May 29, 2008

RETHINKING EXPANSION - The next step in Manhattanville activism

Date: Thu, 29 May 2008 05:39:54 -0700 (PDT)
From: "Anne Z. Whitman"
Subject: Fwd: Manhattanville, Old Manhattanville, Historic Preservation in Manhattanville, West Harlem, Harlem, Columbia University Expansion
To: "Jordi Reyes Montblanc"

Note: forwarded message attached.

Anne Z. Whitman


The next step in Manhattanville activism
Natalie DeNault

Back in 2002, Columbia University announced plans to construct a 17-acre campus to the north of its present campus in an area of West Harlem known as Manhattanville. The new campus would span from 125th to 134th streets and from Broadway westward to the Hudson River. The area is currently filled with a mix of residential housing and light industry, such as car mechanics and storage facilities. Columbia intends to replace these homes and businesses with their relocated Business School and School of the Arts, in addition to new biotech research labs and a science, math and engineering secondary school. The University currently owns 65% of the area. The last 35% have so far resisted the University’s attempts to buy them out, and they are facing the possibility of eviction through eminent domain.

While the redevelopment of Manhattanville provides an important opportunity for the University’s growth, many residents, local businesses and Columbia students have raised concerns over the details of the expansion. While only 300 residents will be displaced directly from the expansion zone, over 5,000 people living within a fourth mile of the area are vulnerable to indirect displacement through rising rents. There is very little rent stabilization in the area, and as Columbia affiliates and other developers move in, many long-term community members will no longer be able to afford their homes.

As a selling-point for the plan, Columbia has highlighted the fact that 7,000 jobs will be created by the new campus. However, many of these new positions require at least a college degree, while the expansion is destroying thousands of well-paying jobs in the industrial sector. Furthermore, there are no guarantees that the majority of the created jobs will go to local residents or that the jobs will pay a living wage.

The Coalition to Preserve Community’s Demands for Columbia

1. Withdraw the proposal for eminent domain, cease to use the threat of eminent domain to intimidate owners to sell, and abandon the process of imposing gag orders on those that have entered into agreements to sell.

2. Withdraw the proposal to build the 7-story below grade structure and the request to build under city streets.

3. Build only on property owned by the University and obtained through negotiations with the owners without coercion and without the threat of eminent domain.

4. Guarantee that all housing developed directly by Columbia as a result of the Proposed Actions would meet the inclusionary housing requirements of the 197-a Plan.
5. Columbia’s immediate development and permanent implementation of an effective housing anti-displacement program

6. Pursue State and National Registers listing of any of its properties within the proposed development area found “eligible” by New York’s State Historic Preservation Office and not oppose LPC landmark designation of any site herein.

7. Not build pollution emitting power sources - such as power plants and co-generation facilities - or research facilities above bio-safety level 2, or other noxious installations that would contribute to the already high environmental burdens of this community.

8. Commit to sustainable design and construction practices that result in LEED platinum designation by U.S. Green Building Rating System prior to the commencement of construction.

9. Engage in good faith negotiations with CB9 to achieve a mutually beneficial land use compromise through technical amendments to the community’s 197-a development plan.

10. Otherwise meet the goals and objectives outlined in the 197-a Plan including, but not limited to, mitigating all direct and indirect adverse impacts with respect to job creation for local residents, economic development, socio-economic conditions, environmental protection and sustainable development, public transit, neighborhood character, public open space and other impact areas, as delineated by CB9 in the 197-a Plan.

Another major concern, over which local business owner recently sued Columbia, is the potential environmental hazards created by Columbia’s 197-c plan. The plan calls for the creation of a seven-story underground to create a structure known as the “bathtub.” This bathtub will span underneath the entire new campus and will contain biotech research laboratories, business school programs, storage facilities, gas-fired power plants, an underground MTA bus depot, and swimming facilities. However, Manhattanville lays over an earthquake fault line and borders the Hudson River. There is concern that water pressure from the river could multiply faults on the bottom of the bathtub. And with global warming threatening to raise water levels, there is also concern the Hudson River could flood the structure and cause materials from the biotech research laboratories to be released into the neighborhood. The plaintiff’s lawyer, Norman Siegel, explained, “If there were a storm surge, you could have water coming out and going into the Harlem communityÑwith possible toxic materials.”

In November of last year, seven students and one professor staged a 10-day hunger strike to address several campus concerns, including the Manhattanville Expansion. Throughout the strike, there was a strong presence of West Harlem community members who spoke at several of the nightly vigils. Although the strike was successful in getting more support for Ethnic Studies, the Office of Multicultural Affairs, and restructuring the Major Cultures requirement, the demands regarding Manhattanville were left unaddressed by Columbia’s administration.
As the students were waging the hunger strike, Columbia’s 197c Plan was going through the final stages of New York’s Uniform Land Use Review Procedure (ULURP). On December 17 last semester, just as students were wrapping up their finals and heading home for the holidays, the New York City Planning Commission approved Columbia’s 197-c plan for rezoning the Manhattanville Area for Columbia’s usage. Despite major community objections to the expansion plans, no real changes were made as the commissioners signed off.

Just before the vote, Columbia and the controversial West Harlem Local Development Corporation (WHLDC) created a preliminary document known as the Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) to enumerate Columbia’s vague commitments toward the community.

The WHLDC was created as a not-for-profit entity representative of the West Harlem community to negotiate with Columbia University over the details of the expansion. However, in December three of its members resigned citing lack of transparency and dissatisfaction with the presence of elected city officials as board members. They felt the WHLDC was not truly representative of the community and was being used to legitimate an unfair, one-sided process with no real community dialog.

Following the City Planning Commission’s approval of the 197c Plan, Councilmember Tony Avella has described the process of drafting of the MOU and signing of the plan as being rushed, last-minute decisions driven by power politics rather than equity. Given that thousands of local residents will be displaced as a result of the expansion, it is felt that more thought and precision should have been put into revising the plans in accordance to community needs before their approval.

Among Columbia’s commitments in the Memorandum of Understanding are a $76 million “Benefits Fund” to be doled out over a 12-year period, $20 million for an affordable housing fund, $30 million toward the creation of a public school, and allowance of community access to Columbia facilities. However, a close review of the MOU reveals that it falls short of promising anything substantial. The 12-year payment schedule on the Benefits Fund is back-loaded so the heaviest payments fall closer to the end when the dollars have lost their purchasing power to inflation. The $20 million for affordable housing is only enough to build approximately 80 units of affordable housing for a family making 30-50% of the West Harlem median income. This means that Columbia is committing to less than 10% of the amount needed to mitigate the displacement caused by the expansion. However, the housing created with this money will likely not even be affordable to this income bracket because it will be constructed to serve those 80% of the area median income of the entire New York metropolitan area, including wealthy areas like Westchester. The $20 million goes toward a “revolving loan fund” that requires the developer to pay back the borrowed money, giving the developer little incentive to create truly low-income affordable housing.

There are 5,035 people living in non rent-stabilized housing within a quarter mile of the expansion area, making them extremely vulnerable to secondary displacement. Columbia’s Environmental Impact Statement calculates that the majority of these people will lose their homes as the expansion causes rents to skyrocket. With this revolving loan housing fund we should expect to see minimal numbers of new affordable housing units created and the current neighbors being replaced by a higher socioeconomic bracket of “affordable housing” residents.

Another substantial shortcoming of the MOU is that it does not detail how community members will have oversight over the correct usage of the money going into community programs.

Back in November of last year, the New York City Planning Commission simultaneously approved olumbia’s 197-c development plan along with West Harlem Community Board 9’s 197-a plan, which is blueprint for all future developments in the area. The 197-a plan requires all new development to respect current living wage jobs and affordable housing and to build environmental sustainable infrastructure. It is not meant to restrict redevelopment in the area, but rather to promote it in a manner that preserves the integrity of the neighborhood. The Chairwoman of the Planning Commission, Amanda Burden, claims that the 197-c and 197-a plans are compatible. Yet, many current residents remain unhappy with the glaring lack of support for community infrastructure and stability under Columbia’s 197-c plan. Columbia’s plan depends on the use of eminent domain, which will cause massive displacement, and includes the creation of a 17-acre “bathtub” basement, and level 3 biotech research laboratories. The Community’s 197-a Plan rejects eminent domain, calls for protection and creation of affordable housing and living wage jobs, and demands environmental safety and stability. Throughout the land use review procedure, Columbia advocated for an all-or-nothing approach. The plan approved is just that — very little constructive community input was incorporated.

Moving forward

While there is no going back from the City Planning Commission’s rezoning approval in December, there is still plenty of elbow room for community members to affect the nature of the actual development and the community benefit agreements.

The community-based action group, Coalition to Preserve Community, is currently redrafting and reaffirming their list of demands for the expansion in light of the rezoning. These ten requests for Columbia to respect the integrity of the residential area include: no use of eminent domain, no bathtub structure, guarantees for lowincome affordable housing, no environmental hazards, compliance with 197-a plan, and a commitment to good-faith negotiations with Community Board 9 regarding all future development of the area. Likewise, the Columbia student group Student Coalition on Expansion and Gentrification (SCEG) has been refocusing their efforts in the wake of the CPC’s vote and last November’s hunger strike, which yielded no concessions in respect to the expansion plans. In the future, SCEG is refocusing their efforts on a “No-Dough Pledge” for alumni, faculty, and parents, committing to withhold donations as long as the university engages in unethical expansion. In addition, SCEG is continuing to educate students and Columbia affiliates about the more controversial aspects of the expansion. The course of the expansion is far from settled, as the threat of eminent domain is still on the table for three landowners in the expansion zone, construction of the buildings has not yet begun, Columbia has not yet raised the money for the 22 years of construction ahead, the specifics on the Community Benefits Agreement, as outlined in the Memorandum of Understanding, have not been fleshed out, and the widespread displacement has not yet begun.

  • The city approved Columbia’s plan in December—so what is happening now?

    Columbia has continually promised that the negative impacts of its plan would be compensated for in the Community Benefits Agreement (CBA); however, this agreement has been released and it falls pitifully short:
    The funds for housing ($20 million) will meet only 5-10% of the need created by Columbia’s plan! The CBA does not specify when the funds will be available and by whom they will be administered.

    The general “Benefits Package” is $76 million over 12 years, with most being paid near the end of the period. This means inflation, the impending recession and other factors will lessen the actual value of the package

    The package will begin to pay out “commencing upon issuance of the first new build- ing permit,” which means funds will not come until Columbia starts to build. But funds are needed now because displacement and other impacts have already begun.

    This package will be administered by “local elected officials, CU representatives and representatives of the West Harlem Local Development Corporation.” These are CBA funds, and they should be administered by an independent entity with a broad representation from the community—not a panel full of politicians who sold-out the community by supporting the plan and people from Columbia! Ways to get involved for a fair and equitable expansion:

    DISCUSS: Talk to your neighbors, friends, family and local civic groups (tenant and block associations, religious groups) about expansion, and share this information with them!

    ORGANIZE: There are many West Harlem community organizations currently dealing with issues of expansion. The
    Coalition to Preserve Communitylink holds meetings at St. Mary’s Church on 126th Street. If you are interested contact Julie by email or by phone at 917-628-8274 for information about the next meeting.

    REACH OUT: Columbia students and faculty oppose this plan! Contact the
    Student Coalition on Expansion and Gentrification if you would like to collaborate on an expansion-related project (educational, action-oriented, whatever!) or just meet to talk about how together we can hold the University accountable.

    Pledge to abstain from donating to Columbia University until the University can concretely demonstrate its commitment to the values it proclaims to uphold in regard to its current expansion into West Harlem.

Community members and concerned students alike are hoping that the expansion plans can be modified in a way that is equally beneficial for all parties involved. As a university located on the edge of an important cultural community, we need to be cognizant of the long-lasting effects our growth can and will have on the character of the Harlem Neighborhood. So far, city politics processes have paved the way for Columbia’s expansion. Columbia wields enormous clout as one of New York City’s largest private developers and seventh largest non-government employer.

There is much we hope to do to influence Columbia’s landuse and to increase the amount of money Columbia pledges to create affordable housing and guarantee living wage jobs for local residents on their new campus. While the expansion is a fact, the current ethics of its impact leave much for Columbia to improve upon before laying down the first brick.


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