Friday, February 29, 2008

Will Columbia Take Manhattanville?

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Posted on February 29, 2008

Will Columbia Take Manhattanville?

Balancing an Ivy League university’s expansion plan with a Harlem neighborhood’s needs is a tricky business, especially when eminent domain is in the mix. By Miriam Axel-Lute

The historic Sheffield Farms stable building (foreground) on Broadway, will be razed for Columbia's expansion.

In April 1968, angry students, faculty, and community members occupied several Columbia University buildings in response to the university’s plans to build a gymnasium on land taken from nearby Morningside Park, which served the largely black Harlem neighborhood. Seven hundred people were arrested, and the gym was never built.

That protest was on many people’s minds when, on Nov. 7, 2007, six Columbia students and a professor launched a two-week hunger strike that targeted the latest Columbia building project in Harlem: a new 17-acre campus planned for Manhattanville, a working-class neighborhood full of warehouses and auto-repair businesses a few blocks northwest of Columbia’s main campus.
The hunger strike sent one student to the hospital and ended with no promises from the university to change its plans. But it is likely not the end of the unrest. Tensions are running high about the proposal, which involves a dense, mixed-use urban campus with ground-floor retail and a huge below-grade complex. Opponents of the plan nearly halted a Nov. 26, 2007 City Planning Commission meeting, and Columbia employees who are already working in buildings in the new area report being harassed on the street. Are these harbingers of serious neighborhood strife, or simply growing pains?

Jordi Reyes-Montblanc, former president of Community Board 9, an advisory governmental body whose area includes Columbia’s existing and proposed campuses, seemingly threw down the gauntlet when he said, “I warned Columbia when I became president [of the community board], to be respectful of the community [in this expansion] or you will remember 1968 as the good old days.”

The fight over Manhattanville is a quintessential, if extreme, example of how difficult it is for communities to be heard when powerful institutional neighbors propose development or redevelopment. It also highlights the challenge local governments face in trying to determine what will be best for a neighborhood—and a city—in the face of such conflict. It is especially charged because the plan as Columbia envisions it will require the state to invoke eminent domain on the university’s behalf, adding fuel to debates raging locally and nationally over when, and if, eminent domain should be invoked for redevelopment purposes.

One way in which the Columbia expansion plan saga is unusual, however, is that it is not merely the story of one proposal and a community’s reaction. Columbia’s proposal happened to coincide with a grassroots land-use planning process led by the community board, giving critics of the expansion plan a chance to give a detailed answer to the perennial challenge: “Well, what do you want to happen?”

A New Urban Campus

Ivy League Columbia is an urban university located in New York City. More specifically, it is a Manhattan university. So it comes as no surprise that, like much of the island, it’s crowded.

According to an in-house 2004 study, Columbia has only 38 to 75 percent of the space devoted to education and research as seven of its top competitors, some of whom are nonetheless engaged in marked expansion projects of their own. The school has been spilling out of its main Morningside Heights campus for many years, acquiring properties and taking apartments out of rent regulation in surrounding neighborhoods in ad-hoc and often controversial fashion as need arose.

To keep up with competitors such as Harvard and Yale, in 2003 Columbia introduced an idea for a new urban campus that would accommodate all its growth for the next 30 years. The 17-acre campus would house state-of-the-art research labs; space for business, arts, and international policy schools; public open space; and street-level retail (in buildings owned by the university).

It would squirrel unsightly parking, mechanical functions, and academic support space in a vast below-grade space, keeping building heights down. The university estimates that the project will add 6,000 university jobs to the area over the next 25 years (1,200 in the first phase of construction).

Columbia’s Web site trumpets that the development will “transform what is now a largely isolated, underutilized streetscape of garage openings, empty ground floors, roll-down metal gates and chain-link fences � into a cohesive, reanimated center for educational, commercial and community life.”

On the Other Hand

But many residents, local business owners, and planners involved in the community’s own planning process don’t see it in such a rosy light. According to consultants from Pratt’s Center for Community Development, they see a functional working-class industrial neighborhood threatened with “wholesale removal” by an institution with a long history of encroaching on its neighbors. Despite its projected mixed uses and pocket parks, and promises that it will have no gates to keep the community out, the new campus will be a single-owner, mono-culture patrolled by a private security force and benefiting primarily outsiders, say local groups.

Opponents of the plan are driven by a big-picture fear of 1960s-style urban renewal, in which whole neighborhoods were lost to large-scale building projects, but they also have extensive and detailed specific criticisms of Columbia’s proposal, ranging from safety to gentrification:
The site is located on a fault line and in an evacuation zone for hurricane surges and it will include labs that work with biohazards. Could a single massive connected bathtub space under the campus be constructed with adequate safeguards?

The expansion will exacerbate an affordable-housing crunch and create displacement. Along with the direct displacement of a few hundred residents, including tenants of two city-owned buildings who have been working toward taking over as co-operative owners for the past four or five years, the expected indirect displacement is a source of much dispute and anger. Columbia acknowledges that some of this will occur, and in response has committed to building 1,000 units of university housing and funding a $20 million housing trust fund (with $10 million not to be committed until the second phase). However, this may not be enough. Community planners familiar with the project predict displacement on the order of three times Columbia’s estimates.

For example, 3333 Broadway, a massive five-tower complex across from the development site, has already opted out of the city’s Mitchell-Lama moderate-income housing program. As a result, hundreds of previously affordable units are no longer protected by rent regulations.

Jobs, demolition of historic properties (both those with landmark designations, such as the Sheffield Farms Stables, and those of significance to the neighborhood such as the current location of the famed Cotton Club), and additions to the environmental burdens of the neighborhood are also at issue. According to the Coalition to Preserve Community, a group of business owners and residents, about 1.5 percent of Columbia’s 14,000 employees live north of 125th Street in Community Board 9. If this percentage stays consistent, about 90 of the 6,000 promised university jobs would go to neighborhood residents. Given the community’s misgivings about the Columbia plan, it’s not surprising that many expansion opponents have connected with residents of two other New York neighborhoods where huge development projects—Atlantic Yards in Brooklyn and Willetts Point in Queens—have sparked backlash against the use of eminent domain.

Two Plans

Community boards in New York City can and do create their own land-use and zoning plans, called 197a plans, and CB 9 was already working on one when Columbia announced its intentions. The City Planning Commission, knowing the two plans were being developed at the same time, decided in an unprecedented move to consider them simultaneously, each in the light of the other.

This put the community planners in the unusual position of needing to develop their own alternative vision for the area Columbia was targeting, one much more specific than a 197a plan would usually entail. The community’s vision was a “mixed-use, mixed-ownership, predominantly academic uses” area that retained a manufacturing presence and still allowed Columbia to build its new campus on the land it already owns. Underground uses would follow Rockefeller Center’s model of interconnected basements. Their plan envisioned “a 24/7 live and work community, a sense of place, retention of the existing low- and moderate-income rental housing stock, and the continuation of current uses,” for one commercial corridor and a hub of arts and culture for another.

After reviewing Columbia’s plans, the community board made significant adjustments to the 197a plan to accommodate Columbia’s expansion: increasing the density allowed for community facilities, relaxing regulations for ground-floor use, and lining up their proposed district boundaries with Columbia’s.

However, there remained an overriding, apparently irreconcilable difference. The community board’s 197a plan is committed to a mixed-ownership area and an explicit prohibition on the invoking of eminent domain, while Columbia’s is committed to full site control, including asking the state to use eminent domain to transfer ownership of both holdout commercial properties and publicly owned under-street areas to the university.

An Advantage and a Disadvantage

The commission’s decision to consider the plans together had plusses and minuses. The community had to wait a year and a half after the plan was completed for it to be considered, which, according to Mercedes Narciso, a senior planner from Pratt, was unfair. She believes it could have been approved, and then Columbia’s plan evaluated in light of those guidelines. On the other hand, historically 197a plans have been ignored in the face of large attractive proposals like Columbia’s, notes Ron Shiffman, another Pratt consultant. This time, the community’s vision was on the table at the same time as Columbia’s version.

But in the end, the City Planning Commission chose Columbia’s vision. On Nov. 26, 2007, the commission passed both the community’s 197a plan and Columbia’s rezoning proposal, but it removed from the 197a plan the portion dealing with the acreage Columbia wants. On Columbia’s plan, the commission scaled back the size and number of several of the research buildings. There was one vote against Columbia’s proposal, and one abstention; the modified 197a plan passed unanimously.

“To have the 197a plan approved is a great victory,” says Narciso. But the “twisted results” of approving them both will be that “all the amenities are going to be for a community that no longer lives there. It’ll be for the Columbia community.”

In comments to the planning commission’s report, CB 9 representatives note that while the community’s larger plan was approved, the section concerning Manhattanville was turned down on the basis of not providing as much space as the university said it needed; when the commission chose to reduce the amount of academic and research space based on their own “aesthetic values,” Columbia accepted the change without a peep. This, in their opinion, shows that Columbia never negotiated in good faith with the community board and that the planning commission relied too heavily on Columbia’s assessment of the 197a plan.

Eminent Domain

More than anything else, it is Columbia’s insistence that it control the whole site, and the threat of eminent domain that hangs over the remaining properties that Columbia does not own, that is galvanizing and uniting opposition to Columbia’s plans. While few flatly oppose the idea of Columbia expanding, the general consensus (among residents, planners, business owners, and the community board) questions whether allowing the university to expand exactly when, how, and wherever it wants to constitutes enough of a public benefit to justify invoking eminent domain.

The flavor of public good that Lee Bollinger, the university’s president, has in mind as justifying eminent domain is quite general and benefits humankind as a whole. For example, their new neurosciences lab might find the cure for Alzheimer’s disease. A laudable goal surely. But does that mean that business owners who want to keep their buildings and pass their businesses on to their children are being extortionists standing in the way of the greater good, as the university has claimed?


Academic institutions are strongly rooted to place, and Columbia is no exception. Its New York location and historic campuses are a major attraction in recruiting students and faculty. In fact, the president’s letterhead reads “Columbia University. In the City of New York.” The idea that the university might leave the city is nearly absurd. Yet in the expansion’s environmental impact statement introduction, after a description of how the university is the 11th largest non-governmental employer in the city, is this interesting assertion: “Columbia has stated a strong commitment to remain in New York City.” In an era when employers routinely threaten to relocate in order to obtain public resources, it’s easy to see a mention of “commitment to remain” as a way to make the city feel it “owes” Columbia something for this commitment.

So while Columbia focuses on the big-picture effects its expansion could have on the city or the world at large, the effects of its plans on the neighborhood level are already being felt. The university currently owns as much as 90 percent of the expansion footprint, where it has been stockpiling property, and, some allege, intentionally emptying buildings. Empty buildings create area blight, which is a necessary step toward the state taking the property through eminent domain.

Ann Whitman, owner of an art transportation business located in a historic property in the footprint, told The Next American City that the university’s negotiating tactics began with a “Deal with us now, or deal with the state later,” approach. She later received a letter on Columbia letterhead telling her that her property was “eligible for eminent domain.” The scare tactics were effective. The community’s 197a plan points out that area manufacturing employment had been steadily increasing from 1991 to 2000, adding 403 jobs, but dropped steeply once Columbia started buying up property, shedding 372 jobs from 2000 to 2002.

Irwin Cantor, the planning commissioner who abstained from the vote on Columbia’s proposal, noted that it was particularly galling that Columbia’s plan explicitly says that eminent domain won’t be sought for properties in the second phase of development (15 years away) until needed.

This leaves owners responsible for the buildings, but effectively unable to improve or sell them (except to Columbia) as a result of the threat of eminent domain hanging over them. There’s a vanishingly small chance that these owners would be able to get financing to improve their property; and in the unlikely event that there was a buyer, that buyer would also not be able to get financing. Only three property owners in the footprint of Columbia’s expansion have not sold to the university to date. No one knows how many of those who have sold felt pressured to sell by the threat of eminent domain.

This is, in fact, one of the insidious aspects of eminent domain. Just raising the possibility of its use has immediate effects, almost always to the benefit of the entity wishing to acquire property. And those benefits are not evenly distributed. Eminent domain is most often used in the name of economic development or large-scale redevelopment, which primarily benefits already powerful entities. Smaller, more incremental community-based efforts are less likely to need to assemble such huge tracts of land.

One quiet reminder of this is the fact that media accounts and activists have been regularly referring to Columbia “using” or “agreeing not to use” eminent domain. In fact, Columbia has no ability to use the power and can only ask the state to act on its behalf. For example, Newsday wrote on Dec. 6, 2007, “Although the university has acquired most of the properties in the project’s footprint, it hasn’t ruled out using eminent domain to acquire the rest.” And on Dec. 13, The Daily News quoted the testimony of Robert Kasdin, Columbia’s senior executive vice president, at a city council hearing: “Under no condition will Columbia University use eminent domain against any residential properties.” The Daily News did not clarify the fact that Columbia cannot “use” eminent domain.

In the Wake Of Kelo

In 2005, the Supreme Court ruled in Kelo v. New London that the economic development generated by a new Pfizer plant and luxury homes would be sufficient reason for New London, Conn. to invoke eminent domain to take nonblighted residences. This touched off a firestorm of anti-eminent-domain activism and legislation nationally. What had once been mostly the concern of hardcore property-rights advocates received an infusion of support from both the left and right wing, and dozens of states passed restrictions on the use of eminent domain, especially on the transfer of condemned property to private owners. The campaigns supporting these measures often featured stories of small-business owners like Whitman, who lost their premises to redevelopment projects.

But this movement also generated concern among local development officials and community-development groups that extreme remedies for extreme cases were going to block the use of eminent domain in other situations. Public-private partnerships to renovate apartment buildings once owned by slumlords, for example, would be prohibited under laws meant to prohibit transfer of condemned property to a for-profit company if a private nonprofit ended up owning the building. Limits on invoking eminent domain for redevelopment could stymie grass-roots community-redevelopment plans if one absentee owner of a vacant property refused to sell.

Pratt’s Shiffman, who supports the community’s stance that eminent domain should not be allowed for Columbia’s project, worries that emotional reactions like these to actual abuses of eminent domain will make it difficult to use it as a tool in the future to implement true grassroots-supported plans or to mitigate the harm of absentee or negle ctful ownership. “I’m a supporter of eminent domain,” he explains, “but it should go through a public process, and start with a city plan. It shouldn’t start from a private developer. That weakens it when you need to use it for a true public purpose�. I’m afraid over time we’re legitimately going to need it and we’re not going to have it.”

New York State has so far not passed such restrictions. But in New York City, Columbia’s expansion, along with the Atlantic Yards and Willetts Point developments, are fanning the flames of anti-eminent-domain sentiment and perhaps helping to create a constituency for such legislation. “We are totally, totally, totally against eminent domain,” says Reyes-Montblanc, former chair of Community Board 9. “Most states have awakened to [eminent-domain abuse] and taken corrective action.” Reyes-Montblanc echoes many in CB 9 when he says he supports restricting eminent domain to more traditional public-use cases, such as roads, public schools, and hospitals.

Karen Phillips, a founder of the Abyssinian Baptist Development Corporation (a Harlem community development corporation) and the lone dissenting vote against Columbia’s proposal on the city planning commission, also finds this worrisome. “A lot of people want to say ‘I’m really against eminent domain.’ That’s not a realistic approach for anyone who wants to participate in comprehensive planning,” she says. Even preventing condemned property from going to a private entity is problematic, she notes: Community developers are private entities. Phillips says that instead, local officials should hold to a standard of “public benefit” where a project for which eminent domain is invoked must itself serve the whole community, not just come with concessions from the developer to fund attractive extras.

Shiffman agrees, saying that relying on negotiating a community-benefits agreement before decisions about land use and zoning are finished amounts to “purchasing” planning decisions. He says he was angry to see Columbia’s attention shift almost entirely to the local development corporation that was negotiating the community-benefits agreement for this expansion while the community board was still trying to discuss resolving differences in their zoning proposals.

Defining when a project is generally beneficial to a neighborhood and its existing residents and businesses is no easy task, not to mention balancing a neighborhood’s needs with those of anchor institutions and cities and regions at large. There will likely always be disputes, but one important step to achieving a more progressive, fairer result than in Manhattanville will be to shift the balance of power in the negotiations, says Phillips. Rather than fighting to be heard, “the community should be in a stronger role to negotiate for what they want from the private sector � and the public sector,” she says.

Going Forward

The city council was expected by many to address Columbia’s plan and the amended 197a plan in mid-January, but in a surprise move that prompted accusations of trying to avoid further public debate, the plans were brought to a vote in mid-December. Both plans were approved, though some council members noted that they appeared to conflict.

In the wake of these decisions, the remaining property owners could decide to negotiate sales with Columbia after all, giving a somewhat anticlimactic go-ahead to the expansion. Or they could, as some have threatened, go to court to try to keep their buildings. In either case, community activists, planners, and the community board will continue to try to affect, adjust, or redirect what they consider the worst aspects of the plan.

And in either case, West Harlem will change dramatically over the coming decades, possibly in ways predicted by community activists, possibly in ways predicted by Columbia, likely some of both. What exactly it will look like remains to be seen, but those concerned with the relationship between cities and their institutions of higher education, and with the search for a fair and progressive approach to eminent domain, will be keeping a close eye on its progress.

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