Friday, July 25, 2008

Housing Bill Has Something for Nearly Everyone


Your Money

Housing Bill Has Something for Nearly Everyone
Published: July 25, 2008

If you are ignoring the housing bailout bill because you think it benefits only troubled homeowners, you may miss out on a windfall.
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Times Topics: Housing

The bill, expected to be passed by the Senate in the next few days and then signed by President Bush, does offer incentives to certain overextended borrowers and their mortgage lenders.
But it also includes many handouts to first-time homebuyers, longtime homeowners, returning veterans and senior citizens seeking to tap their home equity without getting hit with big fees. Millions of people have the potential to benefit in some way.

Huge numbers of people buying homes for the first time, for instance, will be eligible for what amounts to an interest-free loan from the government. Meanwhile, older Americans will now be able to borrow more and possibly pay less for reverse mortgages that allow them tap the equity in their homes.

Whether larding up the bill with all these benefits is good for taxpayers is a debate for another part of the newspaper. But there is no shame in taking advantage of what is offered. In fact, you would be foolish not to.

Here are some of the new benefits:

RENEGOTIATING MORTGAGES Part of the bill is devoted to the creation of a program that may allow some people to cancel their old mortgage loans and replace them with new fixed-rate loans lasting at least 30 years. The amount of the new loans would be no more than 90 percent of what their property is actually worth now.

So who is eligible? You need to have originated your troubled loan or loans on or before Jan. 1, 2008. The loans in question must be on your primary residence. Vacation homes and investment properties are ineligible. You will also need to verify your income, which many borrowers did not have to do in recent years.

Also, as of March 1, 2008, your monthly housing payment (including the principal on all your various mortgage payments, interest, taxes and insurance) has to have been at least 31 percent of your monthly household income. So if you were earning $5,000 a month and had housing payments of $3,000, you are eligible. But if you had payments of just $1,400, you would not be, presumably because that loan is affordable given the size of your income.

Lenders, however, are not required to give you a better deal under the new law, even if you do meet the qualifications. They may not be willing to negotiate unless they think you are truly on the cusp of foreclosure.

If you manage to get a new loan, you cannot take out a home equity loan for at least five years after you get the new mortgage. You will also have to pay a 1.5 percent fee each year on the remaining balance. Finally, you have to hand over no less than 50 percent of any appreciation on the home to the government once you sell. Sell the house in less than five years, and you will have to turn over as much as all of the gain.

This program ends on Sept. 30, 2011. While it does not officially take effect until Oct. 1, lenders may be willing to start their negotiations with borrowers now.

BREAK FOR FIRST-TIME BUYERS If you are buying a home for the first time, and it is your primary residence, you are eligible for a federal tax credit of $7,500 or 10 percent of the purchase price, whichever is smaller. With a tax credit, you subtract the credit amount from the total you would otherwise pay to the Internal Revenue Service. So if you owe $1,500 and you qualify for the credit, you would end up getting a $6,000 refund.

There are two big catches, though. If you earn a modified adjusted gross income of more than $75,000, or $150,000 if you are married and filing your tax return jointly, the credit starts to phase out. For single people, it phases out completely at $95,000 of annual income, while for married people filing jointly, it phases out at $170,000.

But you have to pay back the credit over the next 15 years, in equal amounts each year when you pay your federal taxes. That makes this more like an interest-free loan than a true credit. According to the National Association of Realtors, there were about 2.5 million first-time home buyers in 2007. A large proportion of them would have qualified for this credit, but whether it is enough to push would-be buyers over the edge this year remains to be seen.

The tax credit is retroactive to home purchases on April 9, 2008, and expires on July 1, 2009. If you purchase a home from Jan. 1, 2009 to June 30, 2009, you can claim the tax credit on your 2008 tax return.

ADDITIONAL DEDUCTION If you are a homeowner who takes the standard deduction on your federal income taxes and does not itemize, this one is for you. You can now take an additional federal tax deduction of $500, or $1,000 if you are married and filing your tax returns jointly. Again, this one is gravy; you get it in addition to the standard deduction.

Since itemizers are often people who pay a lot of mortgage interest, this deduction will generally benefit people who pay little or none, like those who have paid off their mortgages entirely or close to it. There is one hitch here: you will need to report the property taxes you paid on your tax form. If they are less than $500 (or $1,000 if you are married and filing a joint return), your deduction will be limited to the amount of the property tax you paid.

REVERSE MORTGAGE CHANGES Reverse mortgages allow older Americans, generally 62 and older, to get a lump sum or a monthly check that comes out of their home equity. They do not have to pay the money back until they stop living there permanently or their heirs sell the house.

The problem with these loans, however, is that they often come with high fees. Moreover, some salespeople pressure borrowers who are applying for the loan to purchase annuities, long-term care insurance or other financial products that are not necessarily in the borrower’s best interest.

The bill tries to address both issues. First, it limits origination fees on reverse mortgages at 2 percent of any loan up to $200,000 and 1 percent beyond that, up to a maximum of $6,000.

The bill also states explicitly that borrowers cannot be forced to purchase an annuity or other financial or insurance product as a condition of qualifying for a reverse mortgage.

Finally, the bill raises the maximum amount that people can borrow. Before, the limits were set on a county by county basis, according to AARP’s legislative policy director, David Certner. The biggest allowable mortgage available anywhere was just over $400,000. Now, there is a nationwide cap of $625,500.

REDEFINITION OF JUMBO LOANS Often, if you want the mortgage loan with the lowest possible interest rate, it has to be small enough to be purchased by Fannie Mae or Freddie Mac from whatever bank or other institution originated it.

Under the new bill, Fannie and Freddie have permanent authority to buy bigger loans in areas with high housing costs. (Temporary measures allow them to buy bigger loans, but those expire on Dec. 31.) They can buy loans up to 115 percent of the local median home price, though they cannot buy any loans larger than $625,500. Any larger loan will generally be a jumbo loan, which will cost more in interest.

A BREAK FOR VETERANS Lenders will have to wait nine months, instead of 90 days, before beginning foreclosure proceedings on homes owned by someone returning from the military. Lenders must also wait a year before raising interest rates on a mortgage held by someone returning from military service.

These provisions expire on Dec. 31, 2010.

Is your lender negotiating? Tell all to

ON Languages

J. Reyes-Montblanc
25 July 2008

On Languages

The United States occupies territories formerly part of the Spanish, French and British Empires.

Florida and Louisiana changed hands between Spain France and England several times.
Colonist from each of the Metropolises colonized their sections of North America.

In 1764 at the end of the Seven Years War, (The French & Indian War) (considered by many as the First World War), The French lost their North American colonies in Canada and as a result of War Compensation ceded Louisiana back to Spain having lost New France (Quebec and Acadia) to British North America (the Thirteen Colonies and Canada).

The City of New Orleans was actually rebuilt by the Spanish who repopulated the territory with Spanish colonials from the Canary Islands and Cuba. Politically and religiously Louisiana fell under the Captain General and the Archdiocese of Cuba. In 1803 Napoleon who had conquered Spain, illegally sold Louisiana to the newly established United States of America and the Spanish and French people became US Citizens with all their rights properties and privileges including languages protected by treaty.

In 1819 Spain sold Florida to the US receiving an additional sum in compensation for the illegal purchase of Louisiana. The Spanish settlers of Florida also were similarly protected by treaty guaranteeing their rights, properties and privileges including the Spanish language, The first Florida elected Representative and the first Army General of Spanish origins was Joseph Marion (José Maria) Hernandez.

In 1848 the US entered into a War with Mexico over the former Mexican Province of Texas that had declared its independence in 1836 had asked to be annexed to the USA. At the end of the Mexican War the US had acquired all of the Mexican provinces north of the Rio Grande that became Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, California, Nevada, Colorado, Montana, Utah, etc. The Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo guaranteed the rights, properties and privileges including the Spanish language of the former Spanish settlers, Mexican citizens only for about 20 years, and now US Citizens.

English, Spanish and French languages are therefore legacy languages of the United States and NOT foreign languages as some people, in their fear of losing opportunity feel limitated and threatened due to their being English mono-lingual wrongfully believe.

Most Spanish and French speaking Americans have almost no connection, except in some sentimental level with the countries of origins of their American ancestors; they have served in every War since before the Revolutionary War of Independence, pay their taxes and generally are good, productive, loyal citizens.

Immigration and high birth rates through the centuries has increased the number of Spanish speakers to the point of making them one of the largest ethnic groups in the country. Many do not speak Spanish at all for several generations.

In the 1970’s the US government created a classification for census purposes called “Hispanic”. But keep in mind that in Spanish the word means of Spain and the peoples of Spain and their children born in the American, African and Asian Spanish colonies. Historically in the Americas the European children of the Spanish, French and Portuguese colonial settlers are called Criollos, Creoles and Criolos.

In the US, "Hispanic" is not at all a racial term but an artificial
"ethnicity" as under the Census and US laws Hispanics are described as being of any race or combination of race or races and from various countries of origin. More than Half of US Hispanics are Euro-Hispanics, others are Native American-Hispanics, Afro-Hispanics, Asian-Hispanics and others are of all sort of interesting combinations and re-combinations of all of the above, that is why correctly the question about being Hispanic is usually separated from the race question in government forms.

In the last 20 years of so “illegal” immigration has become an increasing problem which is perceived by many to be a tremendously heavy burden on our society. The defenders of the “illegal’s” refer to them as “undocumented" and have worked diligently to try to erase any differences between Legal Immigrants which our country still welcomes in large numbers and the “illegal’s” who brake our laws to jump the border, thus referring as "anti-immigrant" those who oppose the "illegals" and refuse to grant another amnesty or a plan to "legalize" them that would affect the Legal flow of immigrants. There is fundamental principle in English Common Law that says that an illegal cannot result in a legal benefit, somehow this fundamental fact is being ignored by the pro "illegal" immigration faction.

A large number of these “illegals” are classified as Hispanics although many have no traces of Spanish blood and some speak no Spanish at all although coming from Spanish-speaking countries and carrying Spanish names and surnames.

We must never confuse "Legal Immigrants" with the "Illegal Aliens" or consider that opposition to one means opposition to the other.

The richness of our country is in fact found in diversity of our people and the number of other languages they speak, and that they must never give up, but English is the one and only national language and immigrants do well in learning it and the prevailing American customs and practices which eventually they will afffect as other immigrants before have done to create our American Way. When in Rome do as the Romans do is an old saying that was true then and still true today, when in the US, LEARN ENGLISH!!!

50th Anniversary Thoughts!

J. Reyes-Montblanc
25 July 2008
50th Anniversary Thoughts

As a young lad, the land where I was born found itself embroiled in a civil war, things deteriorated and it turned into a bloody revolution the effects of which are still being felt in that unhappy island of the Antilles - Cuba.

Because my mother and father were exiles in the US, my sister and I lived with our grandmother and great aunt in a beautiful city then referred as the City of Gardens and today its name is quickly identified as a terrorist prison – Guantánamo.

As things deteriorated in Guantánamo City my mother was able to obtain a safe-conduct pass to pick up my sister and me and bring us to the US on July 25th 1958, six months before the triumph of the Castro Revolution. This means that today I have been in the US for 50 years.

On this 50th Anniversary, coincidental with my 43rd year as an American Citizen, I like to share with you, my fellow Americans what it has meant and means to me to be an American, a Teddy Roosevelt kind of American. I learned English and declared myself an American without any other allegiances, one with the many and the only hyphen is in my surname.

I proudly served our country in the US Marine Corps during our darkest moments in history. I enjoyed the Freedoms to Express myself and Pursuit my Happiness without any obstacles or limitations. I married an American girl and fathered an American son who in turn married an American girl and they provided me with two American grand-children.

I have seen our country change from the segregated South where I finish growing up with benefit of White Privilege, to a country that over all has legally but unfortunately not socially, eliminated Institutional Segregation but where self-segregation seems to be growing illness. I met the first American Negro, as Blacks were then called, while serving in the Marine Corps.

I have seen our country suffer the convulsions of the Civil Rights movement, and as a Marine, the Vietnam War and the Anti-War movement, I have enjoyed and participated in the Sexual Revolution and witnessed women's rights struggle and the “bra burnings” and seen the Gay, Lesbians, Bisexual etc coming out and taking their rightful place in our society. I have witnessed, and hopefully was a contributor to the end of the Cold War and the demise of the Soviet Evil Empire. And have been a member of Community Board 9 Manhattan for almost 15 years serving as Chairman 4 consecutive challenging terms between 2004 and 2007.

CB9M is a unique place with unique and diverse people, through the years I have witnessed disturbing behaviors, impolite and rude comments and outrageous conduct. But in the end after all the fuss and feathers we have ALWAYS looked after each other, suffered each others pains and quietly and many times anonymously helped each others cases or causes.

This Board, not for the faint hearted, assimilates those persons, who want to be part of our efforts, who have the patience and guts to get to know each other without judgment, without jumping to conclusions and have heart enough to ignore perceived small slights and to take no offense at truths presented in the raw or in rude way. I love each of our historic neighborhoods: Hamilton Heights where I live, Manhattanville where CB9M is located and Mornigside Heights and yes even Columbia; I am happy and proud of sharing CB9M membership with all of you.

I am proud to be an American, yet I've never lost my Cuban and Spanish fundamental spirit,
essence, and language, but have grown into an American without giving up on who I am. I believe Teddy Roosevelt meant it that way and would have approved.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Theodore Roosevelt's ideas on Immigrants and being an AMERICAN in 1907

Roosevelt - 1907 : On Being An American

The year is 1907, one hundredand one years ago......
Theodore Roosevelt's ideas on Immigrants and being an AMERICAN in 1907.

"In the first place, we should insist that if the immigrant who comes here in good faith becomes an American and assimilates himself to us, he shall be treated on an exact equality with everyone else, for it is an outrage to discriminate against any such man because of creed, or birthplace, or origin.

But this is predicated upon the person's becoming in every facet an American, and nothing but an American...

There can be no divided allegiance here. Any man who says he is an American, but something else also, isn't an American at all. We have room for but one flag, the American flag...

We have room for but one language here, and that is the English language...

and we have room for but one sole loyalty and that is a loyalty to the American people."

Theodore Roosevelt 1907

Every American citizen needs to read this!

Love at First Sight

More High School Life in Central Pa.
Love at first sight
Posted by jessscv, July 24, 2008 11:41AM

I journeyed to New York City Tuesday to visit Columbia University, the school I used to dream about attending, mainly because it's in New York (and I heart NY) and it was the birthplace of the Beat Generation literary movement. Located in Morningside Heights, the quaintest part of New York I have ever seen (and not in Harlem, as my parents brilliantly deduced), Columbia's campus is beautiful, a gated, tree-lined piece of collegiate heaven far from the chaos of Times Square. However, I decided about ten seconds into the information session that Columbia is not the school of my dreams, and I absolutely do not have the brain capacity required to matriculate (or maybe its because I'm a middle class white girl that earns better-than-decent grades and participates in a few activities--much too ordinary for the Ivy League). It took me about ten seconds to realize that Columbia is not for me (i.e. an acceptance letter is a pure pipe dream), and it took me about five to figure out that the real school of dreams sits (literally) right across the street. Ah, Barnard College, a small, reasonably selective liberal arts college for woman located a skip and a jump across Broadway from Columbia. Barnard is smaller and solely focused on undergraduates, but it is also affiliated with Columbia, so Barnard students can take classes there without dealing with Columbia's madness (swimming tests, core curriculum, getting accepted). Basically, anything a Columbia student can do, a Barnard student can do. Well, they're all women, so there's a few things...

Yes, it was love at first sight. As soon as I stepped onto Barnard's campus, I knew that I wanted to spend four years there. Until Tuesday, I was convinced that I couldn't walk onto a campus and say, "Yep, this is the place," but I did. Crazy right? The only downside was I had to sit through an hour of facts and propaganda about Columbia, and then I had to take a sleep-inducing tour of the sidewalks. Sure it was a waste of time, but it led me to Barnard, the love of my collegiate life; wasting time often does that.

Do not be discourage for what I am about to reveal to you.

Morningside Heights is an integral part of WestSide (West) Harlem.

West Harlem is constituted of 3 historical neighborhoods which streches from West 110th Street north to West 155th Street and from a line that meanders on the east from Manahttan Avenue, Mornignside Avenue, St. Nicholas, Bradhurst Avenue then at West 145th Street one block west to Edgcombe Avenue, western boundary is the Hudson River.

Morningside Heights covers from W 110th to W 122nd.
Manhattanville from W 122nd to West 135th
Hamilton Heights from W 135th to W 155th

West Harlem is not only one of the most diverse population, is is linguistically diverse as well with Spanish, (all 25 kinds) and French (from Cajun, Canadian, to Haitian Kreyole and West African) and of course most people speak all sort of English (from the different British, to various American to Ebonics and Pidgin).

It is also one of the safest places in New York City that makes it one of the safest in the country.

Black Harlem is Central Harlem and it goes from the eastern border of WH to 5th Avenue.
East Harlem aka Spanish Harlem goes from 5th Avenue to the East River.

Like most out-of-towners you hear the word "Harlem" and immediately either think of the Black spiritual capital - Central Harlem aka Harlem or think of a decaying slum populated by druggies, crackheads and unwashed bipeds. WRONG on all counts.

Barnard and Columbia as well as many other fine institutions of higher learning are located in West Harlem mostly in Morningside Heights but soon Columbia will begin working on developing their West Manhattanville Campus from West 125th to West 134th from Broadway to 12th Avenue.

The West Harlem Piers located on the Hudson end of 125th are almost ready to be opened and 12th Avenue is becoming a destination for good restaurants and dancing.

As far as the propaganda of Columbia, believe only half of what you see and none of what you hear from them.
Welcome to our neighborhoods

Jord Reyes-Montblanc

Love at first - Harrisburg,PA,USALocated in Morningside Heights, the quaintest part of New York I have ever seen (and not in Harlem, as my parents brilliantly deduced), Columbia's campus is ...

My Homage to Stan Michels July 24th 2008

My Homage to Stan Michels

At 4:00PM today at Ft. Tyron Park the main promenade was named after former long time New York City Councilman Stanley E. Michels (1978-2001).

I first met the Councilman in 1993, at the time my housing cooperative had just bought the building from the City of New York and converted to an HDFC cooperative when one of the merchants occupying s commercial space on the Broadway side of the Building had refused to accept the authority of the co-op’s Board of Directors and had proceeded to sue the Board, the City and every Board member. The merchant was a Dominican, and although the building was in Stanley’s District, he went to newly elected Councilman Guillermo Linares to use political clout on the Board.

When a representative of Councilman Linares called me to interfere in the case I let him know in no uncertain terms where to get off.

Councilman Linares then asked Stanley to intervene and try to mediate. That is when I first met Martin Smith who at the time was Stanley’s Housing Coordinator.

Any way I arranged for a meeting with the Board and Councilmen Michels and Linares at which meeting it became clear that the merchant had misconstructed the facts and both Stanley and Guillermo decided to step out and let the case follow is course through the courts, eventually we won the case and evicted the merchant after recovering all the legal costs and back rents.

But in the meantime, Stanley approached me to see if I would be interested in serving in Community Board 9 which at the time was in a rather state of turmoil; Stanley’s idea was that a 6 footer, 275 Lbs former Marine would make an ideal “Sergeant at Arms” for CB9M.

I had had some contact with CB9M as the merchant had also approached them through a Latino member and a letter of support was being prepared which in my contacts with the Chairman at the time, Ted Kovaleff, resulted in the Support letter for the Merchant being denied. My Co-op Board urged me to accept the appointment to keep an "eye" on CB9M.

Stanley recommend to Manhattan Borough President Ruth Messinger my appointment to CB9M and I was appointed and have a member since except for one year that I my duties did not permit me time to participate but continued active as a Public Member and later Ruth reappointed me again on Stanley’s recommendation.

In April 1994 the “Dirty 30th” scandal made the news. Stanley called me for a meeting with the late Dr. Albert Bloomberg, Rev. Earl Kooperkamp, then at the Intercession Church and Rev. John Scott, pastor of St. John's Baptist. The idea was to establish a Community Coalition on Police (CCOP) the agenda was simple but, at the time “mission impossible” that is rally the community, reopen the civic dialogue between the police and the community and reestablish the trust needed between the police and the local residents.

Those were the darkest days for Hamilton Heights and Washington Heights, it was the height day of the Whole Sale of Cocaine, from West 135th Street to West 180th Street the NYPD estimate more than 5000 drug trafficker plus their, employees, relatives and supporters.

Our first meeting was with Police Commissioner William Bratton and his deputies and over 200 community residents.

One result of our meetings with Commissioner Bratton and Stanley’s frontal and behind the scenes efforts was the re-establishment of the Beat Officers and then many, many Beat residents meetings with the Beat Officers

There were many such meetings with Bratton and after he left with his successor Commissioner Howard Safir. At one meeting Safir promised to go to Washingto to General Murphy the Drug Tsar for assistance, he did and got $10 Million to start the Upper Manhattan Initiative a joint operation including not just the NYP but also the DEA, FBI, IRS and other Federal and State Agencies the rest is - well history.

These efforts and leadership by Stanley are probably forgotten or ignored by most of the area residents today. Hamilton Heights and West Harlem’s debt to Stan Michels is enormous

But Stanley had many other interests that benefited many people not only in West Harlem and Washington Heights but throughout the whole City.

For the HDFC cooperative community Stanley was “Our Man in City Hall”. As president of the HDFC Council the City-wide association of Housing Development Fund Cooperatives I had many extraordinary and private conversations with Stanley, He was always there for us.

Stanley pushed for a piece of legislation that benefits all HDFCs to be able to apply for J-51 Tax Abatement benefits when master metering the electricity and sub metering and got with Speaker Vallone to look into the legislation with became law when Mayor Giluliani signed in 1998. This results in large savings to the cooperative's total electric bill.

The last thing Stanley did before he vacated his seat in City Council in 2001 was to have Steve Simon, long time Chief of Staff, fax me a copy of the letter he wrote to the Commissioner of HPD in regards to the need to eliminate the 60/40 Security provisions from those HDFCs that had them, Stanley’s recommendation was not only realistically simple but elegant and easy for HPD to do; that is to issue an “Assignment of Proceeds” to each HDFC cooperative whereby HPD would assign the 40% of profits on resale from the City to the HDFC cooperative. Unfortunately we are still waiting for a positive way of removing the 60/40 from our deed other than waiting 25 years for the HPD restriction to expire by now most co-ops are near the 25 year expiration anyway so we will wait a few more years. Stanley's successor in City Council, Robert Jackson did present an Intro to accomplish that and other things but it has never been able to be acted upon at City Council.

The honor being bestow on Stan can never equal the magnitude of his many and great
accomplishments for the community nor equal the love that all of us who have known him all these years have for “Stan The Man”.

J. Reyes-Montblanc
A Friend of Stan
July 24th 2008

ESDC Deems M'Ville Blighted, Adopts Expansion Plan

From: RoMartell
Date: Fri, 25 Jul 2008 18:24:16 EDT
Subject: ESDC Deems M'Ville Blighted, Adopts Expansion Plan

JRM/RM Hey Spike,didn't see this article in your blog, the comment at the top is mine don't know why it came as anonymous as did sign it.


ESDC Deems M'Ville Blighted, Adopts Expansion Plan

By Daniel Amzallag

The Empire State Development Corporation announced Thursday its finding that the Manhattanville area where Columbia plans to build a new campus is “blighted,” signaling authority for the state to invoke eminent domain there.

The board of directors of the ESDC voted in favor of adopting the University’s General Project Plan, which details the expansion proposal, requests of eminent domain, and committed community benefits. Public hearings were authorized for September to allow for further commentary on the plan, after which the board will vote either to affirm the original plan or to include new modifications.

“This exciting project will keep one of the world’s premier universities at the forefront of higher education and academic research for decades to come. In addition, Columbia’s expansion will bring thousands of new jobs to the city and revitalize an area that has been plagued by under investment,” ESDC Downstate President Avi Schick said in a statement.

The Rev. Earl Kooperkamp, pastor of St. Mary’s Church on W. 126th Street, called eminent domain for a private institution “theft” and a “violation of the eighth commandment.” “The General Project Plan is a plan that really enables Columbia to do 100 percent what it wants to do, and I’m afraid that that’s really going to keep the neighborhood marginalized,” he said in testimony to board members Thursday.

ESDC directors announced at the meeting that a second firm, Earth Tech, had been employed in the blight finding, following controversy with Allee King Rosen & Fleming, the firm the state originally employed. On Tuesday, a state appellate court ruled in a Freedom of Information case—brought by Manhattanville property owner Nick Sprayregen against ESDC—that AKRF held an “inseparable conflict” due to its simultaneous employment by both Columbia and ESDC.

The announcement that Earth Tech had been hired by ESDC “to replicate the study of neighborhood conditions” sparked a heated exchange between New York State Senator Bill Perkins, D-West and Central Harlem, and the ESDC board. “It’s outrageous to me that you would have done such a study that I and my colleagues have never seen…and that concerns my neighborhood,” Perkins said.

“It’s always good to have more eyes looking at it than fewer eyes looking at it,” Schick told reporters after the meeting. “As the timeline lengthened…we said why not go back and look again and see if we get the same results with somebody else, and we did.”

Columbia has repeatedly promised it would not seek eminent domain for residential properties within the expansion site, but the General Project Plan states ESDC would “use its eminent domain power to acquire possession of any legal residential unit” after 2018.

The Plan relies on Columbia’s relocating the 298 tenants to alternative housing “before the property housing those residents is needed for Project development.” The University reaffirmed its commitment in a statement following the meeting, saying it will not ask for eminent domain over residential buildings, though narrowing its promise to residences “while they are occupied,” as is also stated in the General Project Plan.

The adoption of the General Project Plan also allows for the transfer of underground space below the expansion site—from W. 125th Street to W. 133rd Street, bordered by Broadway and 12th Avenue—from the city to the University through eminent domain. The eight-story underground area would include a bus depot, energy center, and parking and loading facilities.
With Thursday’s vote, Columbia committed to community benefits additional to the $150 million in benefits signed in December. The University will provide several improvements to civic facilities and allow community access to new Manhattanville facilities. The General Project Plan also commits to a scholarship fund for local students, funded courses for community residents, and job training programs.
Sprayregen, owner of four commercial properties in the expansion site, protested the use of eminent domain in Manhattanville. “I’m angry that I have to wake up each day to fight to keep what is lawfully ours. I’m angry that I have to fight the attempt of Columbia taking what does not belong to them,” he said.
Sprayregen is one of two owners of private property in the expansion footprint who have not sold to the University, though he and Columbia officials have engaged in negotiations.
Norman Siegel, a civil rights lawyer who represents Sprayregen, objected to the classification of Manhattanville as a blighted area, saying blight is defined as “a threat to public health and safety” that has “a detrimental blighting effect on surrounding areas.”

Siegel and Sprayregen vowed to continue fighting Columbia in court, specifically to challenge the blight finding on grounds of its methodology. “If the second consultant [Earth Tech] used same methodology as AKRF, then that study is tainted as well,” Siegel said. “You can’t change the cover of the book and think that the book has been done differently.”

The General Project Plan states, “The high percentage of lots with deteriorating, insanitary and/or underutilized property conditions indicates that the Project Site has been suffering from long-term poor maintenance and disinvestment,” which prevents “the integration of the Project Site into the surrounding community.”

TAGS: blight study, Eminent Domain, ESDC, Manhattanville

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There was never any doubt as to the outcome of this charade and minstrel show that Columbia has been orchestrating for so many years.
But hope, as the saying goes springs eternal.

An industrial area is not pretty by anyone aesthetics, the buildings were erected for function and not for architectural beauty.

The heavy industrial age left the area behind as it either moved out of town and eventually out of the country or was phase out by new technologies not suitable for the old industrial buildings.

Columbia started to buy buildings many years ago but only since the arrival of the current administration has gone all out to purchase whatever was available and in the meantime vacated the buildings, thus creating a semblance of under utilization. However many small industries thrived in the area with over 2500 good paying industrial jobs which began to disappear as businesses leases either expired and not renewed or if renewal offered it was prices that the small companies could not afford.

And so it went until only about 1500 jobs remained 3 years ago and now will completely gone when Columbia finishes their GPP.

The building owners that refuse to sell will now be under bigger stress than before and the residential units now know they have only 10 to 16 years before the eminent domain catches up to them although Columbia announced a few months ago that they would not invoke eminent domain on the residential buildings, another example of their practice in Orwellian double-speak.
Incredible even those businesses that Columbia told repeatedly to the community that would be protected as they have long term leases are now also in danger Columbia having backed down from providing suitable relocation space such is the case of the expanded El Floridita and Floridita Tapas.

The credibility index keep going down for Columbia. Columbia's integrity and ethics are questionable at best and non-existing at worst.

The Central Harlem political establishment has once again shown their disdain for the Westside and accepted a cheap and discounted community benefits agreement instead of the $700 millions sought by the community the politicos settled for a pittance settlement more smoke and mirrors than substance and the City's vaunted $150 Million for affordable housing was already in the pipe line under Mayor Bloomberg's housing initiative, not new and additional funds and if the City's budget fails to cover those funds it will never materialize.

This process has been a sham and a shame. A sham by Columbia and the politicos. A shame for the honest community leaders that worked so hard for 4 years believing in the integrity of the process and other the institutions, political and academic, to their eternal chagrin.

Posted by: RoMartell not Anonymous July 25th, 2008 @ 6:37pm
Further Comments:

"The General Project Plan states, “The high percentage of lots with deteriorating, insanitary and/or underutilized property conditions indicates that the Project Site has been suffering from long-term poor maintenance and disinvestment,” which prevents “the integration of the Project Site into the surrounding community.”

The GPP is absolutely correct; what it fails to indicate is that All of such properties are Columbia University properties and any poor maintenance and disinvestment is strictly on Columbia's part.

Now Columbia will be using eminent domain to obtain not only properties owned by others but also to eliimate any restrictions or covenants or easements attached to the buildings that have been accumulating duirng the last 25 or 30 years by including them also in the eminent domained assault.

It is totally incredible to me and most community residents that such travesty could be committed with the complicity of the Harlem elected officials at all levels of government from the Governor down to the dog-catcher.

How can such a prestigious 250 years old instituion, have sunk so low and demonstrated such lack of integrity, honor and moral terpitude?
Posted by: RoMartell (not verified) July 28th, 2008 @ 10:55pm

The study looked at conditions prior to Columbia ownership. Try getting the facts before you make ignorant allegations.
Posted by: anonymous (not verified) July 24th, 2008 @ 8:42pm

This should be instructive to all those who think that government is in the business of providing equal protection to all. Columbia has been a major property owner in this neighborhood for many years. Indeed, much of the "blight" is actually Columbia property. It seems that the way to riches is to buy property, let it get run-down by not maintaining it according to any standards, and run screaming to the "government" that it needs to be torn down!

With government completely co-opted by money and power, I find it funny when people claim that we live in a democracy. Yes, but one that is private property.

Posted by: anonymous (not verified) July 24th, 2008 @ 9:13am

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Zero Hour in West Harlem

Zero Hour in West Harlem
Last big landowner in Columbia’s way braces for Supreme Court fight as state dangles eminent domain
by Eliot Brown July 22, 2008

This article was published in the July 28, 2008, edition of The New York Observer.

James Hamilton
Nick Sprayregen in his habitat.

For more than three years, Nicholas Sprayregen has kept his word to Columbia University.

The largest private landowner in the footprint of the university’s planned 17-acre West Harlem expansion, he has vowed time and again to fight the university’s attempts to oust him, so long as the school threatens the use of eminent domain.

Now, as the bulk of the area’s politicians have endorsed the expansion, community opposition has gone from a boil to a simmer and all but one other private-property owner has agreed to sell to the university, the fight’s final chapter is poised to be strictly a legal one between two parties: the university and Mr. Sprayregen.

Last Thursday, New York’s Empire State Development Corporation declared as blighted the area northwest of Columbia’s main campus, starting the process to acquire Mr. Sprayregen’s four properties through eminent domain. The action sets the stage for a lengthy legal battle with the institution, as the owner of Tuck-It-Away Self-Storage vows to keep the challenge going.
Still, speaking from his West Harlem office on Friday, the energetic 45-year-old seemed to have adopted, at least temporarily, a more somber outlook than he usually conveys.

“I’m pessimistic that we will be successful,” he said, surrounded by piles of documents related to the expansion. “I have a feeling that if we’re going to get anything, the only way it’s going to happen is that we’re first going to have to lose in the New York courts and then appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court, and hopefully have them take on the case, and then win.
“That’s obviously a long shot.”

SINCE THE UNIVERSITY first announced its intention to expand in the area in 2002, and especially in the past year, as the proposal made its way through the city’s rezoning process, Mr. Sprayregen has watched the landscape around him shift dramatically, with a constant stream of victories for the university.

Three years ago, he was joined by five other business owners in a group that opposed the expansion and vowed to fight property takings. But as of mid-June, he is now the only member left, and just one other private landowner—the Singh family, which owns two gas stations—remains without a deal with Columbia.

Mr. Sprayregen met community opposition last year in an attempt to rezone his properties himself, and he has all but given up hope on a land-swap proposal he made to Columbia, saying university officials in a recent meeting seemed unwilling to part with the property he was eyeing.
The bulk of the political process surrounding the project has also come and gone as well. The local community board opposed the plan, but after a concession package, the City Council voted for the university’s requested rezoning, clearing the way for the school to proceed.

It was through this seven-month rezoning approval process that Mr. Sprayregen sought to gain enough momentum to leverage a deal with Columbia in which it would drop eminent domain from its plan. Local elected officials, particularly members of the City Council, are highly influential in this process, and at least in Mr. Sprayregen’s thinking, could have pushed Columbia to reach a deal he considered fair.

But Columbia proved successful in swaying the Harlem politicians to its side, perhaps the most significant element of its success with the expansion to date.

Enlisting the help of lobbyist Bill Lynch, a former aide to Mayor David Dinkins, the university emphasized the effect the expansion would have on creating jobs and providing housing. Just before the passage of the rezoning in December, it reached an agreement with the elected officials and members of the community to provide tens of millions in commitments to below-market-rate housing, open space, hiring practices and other concessions.

The plan won an easy approval in the City Council, and when the state released the blight study and a general project plan last week, it came with statements of support from, among others, U.S. Representative Charles Rangel, Assemblyman Keith Wright and Governor David Paterson, who once represented the area and who previously called for a statewide moratorium on eminent domain.

Not on that list is State Senator Bill Perkins, the former councilman who took Mr. Paterson’s seat in 2006. Since the rezoning passed, Mr. Perkins has been the lone elected official in the area still critical of the expansion, saying there is a “hue and cry” in the community against the plan, and preparations for the use of eminent domain seem like a “cooked process.”

“The community does not feel as if their needs have been taken into consideration, and they do not feel that, in the end, they will be in the picture,” he said. “I think [Columbia officials] have done a poor job addressing some of the concerns that they have, and I’ve tried to help them recognize it, but I guess they felt they had what they needed in terms of so-called political support and decided to move on.”
In contrast to the rezoning, the use of eminent domain does not require approval from elected officials, and now that the state has declared the area blighted, condemnations could begin in coming months, after a public comment period.

At that point, Mr. Sprayregen expects to begin litigation, and his attorney, Norman Siegel, said he expects to challenge the finding of “blight,” a requisite for condemnation.

“Over the past seven years, Columbia has purchased many of these lots and then they had a practice of vacating and undermaintaining the property,” Mr. Siegel said. “They benefit from the conditions that they either created or allowed to continue.”

Columbia has previously denied any intentional neglect of the properties in the footprint, and David Stone, a university spokesman, said via e-mail, “We also continue to be hopeful that we can reach mutually beneficial, negotiated agreements with the two remaining commercial property owners.”

As for the effect litigation would have on the start of the expansion, Mr. Stone declined to speculate, but part of the area where Columbia wants to build its first buildings contains one of Mr. Sprayregen’s properties and the two gas stations belonging to the Singh family. (The Singhs did not respond to requests for comment.)

NEW YORK'S LAWS on eminent domain are viewed as rather favorable to the state when compared with other laws nationwide, making the climb for Mr. Sprayregen a distinctly uphill one.

Landowners in other eminent domain cases often hope that a prolonged legal battle will derail a project through a changing political landscape or economic climate. But Columbia’s plan seems prone to more stability than a typical private developer’s. The university has a multibillion dollar endowment; already owns the bulk of the land in the footprint; and has always said the expansion is a long-term proposition, and thus a two-year fight through the court system—landowners in Brooklyn have been challenging eminent domain in the Atlantic Yards project for more than a year and a half—does not seem likely to spoil the university’s plans.

Such a fight can be expensive for both sides. For Atlantic Yards, an Empire State Development Corporation spokesman said the state has spent more than $8 million on legal fees, which apply to litigation and other expenses (the state’s fees are reimbursed by developer Forest City Ratner, and Columbia University will reimburse the state for fees related to eminent domain).

Mr. Sprayregen, who estimated he has spent about $1 million so far in legal expenses and other fees, said he was prepared to commit a substantial sum to continue the fight.

“I think if we’re able to take it all the way to the Supreme Court, it will cost another $2 million,” he said. “Obviously, we now have a real legal fight on our hands.”

Monday, July 21, 2008

New York State Agency ‘Adopts’ Columbia University’s $6.3B Mixed-Use Expansion

New York State Agency ‘Adopts’ Columbia University’s $6.3B Mixed-Use Expansion
[July 21, 2008]

By Alex Philippidis

Opponents of Columbia University’s planned $6.3 billion mixed-use project — set to bring nearly 2.6 million square feet of new research lab space to Manhattan’s West Harlem — last week lost one battle against the state’s economic-development agency, but won another in their effort to stop the development.

At a July 17 meeting in New York, the board of the Empire State Development Corp. “adopted” the general project plan for Columbia’s expansion a half-mile northwest of its main campus in Manhattan’s Morningside Heights section, into a 17-acre section of West Harlem that retains its 19th century name of Manhattanville.

ESDC’s action allows a future public hearing on the general project plan. The agency will schedule at least two hearings starting in September — the dates and times had not been announced at deadline — at the request of elected officials representing West Harlem. After those hearings, ESDC’s board will either approve the original plan or request changes reflecting comments made at the hearing.

Avi Schick, ESDC’s president and chief operating officer, defended the agency’s review of Columbia’s mega-project, as well as the state’s refusal to rule out using its power of eminent domain to condemn properties whose owners have refused to sell to the university.

“Eminent domain is an important and necessary economic-development tool that must be used carefully and sparingly. We understand the passions it raises, and we understand the concern that people articulate,” Schick said at a Q&A session with reporters held after the board met at ESDC’s midtown Manhattan offices. “It’s our job to walk that fine line so we can do what’s appropriate.”

The board adopted the project by a voice vote that drew no objections from directors. The vote took place about an hour after several residents, neighborhood groups, one elected official, and a business owner who has sued Columbia to stop the project urged all ESDC to hold off on an approval.

“I had been hopeful that either the state or Columbia would do the right thing and remove the ugly threat of condemnation from the Columbia expansion project. With [last week’s vote] by the state, the reality has pretty much set in that this will not happen,” said Nicholas Sprayregen, owner of Tuck-It-Away, a regional chain of self-storage sites. “As a result, I am more determined than ever to fight this abuse through the courts of this state, and of the country.”

Tuck-It-Away operates four self-storage sites in West Harlem, as well as eight others elsewhere in New York City and one across the Hudson River in Newark, NJ.

ESDC’s new chairman Robert Wilmers, who took office last week, told reporters after the vote that he supported the state having the eminent domain option in the Columbia project, but added that did not weigh in on the agency’s review of the university project.

“Being in the job for four days, I don’t think it’s my role to try and re-think what many people have spent a lot of time and effort on,” said Wilmers, the chairman and CEO of Buffalo-based M&T Bank, one of the nation’s 20 largest commercial lenders with $66 billion in assets.

Wilmers was named to his ESDC last month by Gov. David Paterson to oversee a restructuring of the agency, which has suffered from turf battles and growing inefficiency in the 18 months since it was divided into separate upstate and downstate fiefdoms by Paterson’s predecessor, Eliot Spitzer. [See Around the Regions, this issue].

In their voice vote, three members of ESDC’s board of directors sided with Columbia’s arguments that the project offered the best prospects for the university to address what it has said are shortages of laboratory and classroom space within its 36-acre Morningside Heights campus at a time when several of its programs are growing.

“[The project] would maintain the status of the city and state of New York as centers for higher education, for new graduate programs and scientific research, [and] allow Columbia to maintain its position as one of the foremost educational and cultural institutions in the world,” ESDC concluded in a findings statement.

Columbia was approved late last year to build a total 6.8 million square feet of space, including nearly 2.6 million square feet of new research lab space and 296,201 square feet of support space. Columbia has said it needs the new space to compete better with other top-tier research universities for researchers, and to accommodate several growing programs unable to expand within its existing 36-acre Morningside Heights campus.

“I’m angry that I have to wake up each day fighting on behalf of my family to keep what is lawfully ours. I’m angry that I have to fight the attempt, in broad daylight, of Columbia taking what does not belong to them.”

Those programs include the Jerome L. Greene Science Center for Columbia’s Mind, Brain and Behavior initiative, which would find a permanent home within part of the 351,310 square feet of lab space slated to be built in the project’s first phase, slated to wrap up in 2015.

In its General Project Plan, available here, Columbia said its project would generate 14,000 construction jobs between 2008 and 2033, when “approximately” 6,000 permanent university jobs are expected, not counting an unspecified number of retail and neighborhood services employees to be based on the ground floors of the project’s 17 planned buildings.

The permanent jobs “and other project-related employment” would generate “in excess of” $2 billion in personal income, $168 million in state taxes, and $74 million in state taxes between 2008 and 2033, the GPP concluded.

Columbia’s figures vary from those furnished to New York City officials just last fall. While the university attributes the differences to the use of different economic models in reports it submitted to the state and city, the parameters of both reports also vary, complicating a comparison of the two.

The university’s final environmental impact statement submitted to the city planning commission does not measure jobs and taxes on a cumulative 2008-2033 basis. Instead, the FEIS concluded the mega-project would generate:
  • The equivalent of 1,200 construction jobs each year for 22 years between 2008 and 2030, or 26,732 jobs;
  • 6,399 permanent jobs within Columbia's mixed-use project, plus another 687 just outside but still within the expanse rezoned by the city last December, with the project in mind;
  • Another 3,960 permanent jobs within New York City, a parameter not in the state study; and
  • $2 billion in economic activity, another measure not included in the state study.

The total project cost has also been revised down to $6.28 billion, exclusive of financing costs, from an earlier $7 billion estimate — even as the construction cost has been kicked up to $6.2 billion, from $5.8 billion in the city FEIS [BRN, Dec. 17 2007].

The prospect of thousands of new jobs and millions of dollars in new taxes, plus Columbia’s status as New York City’s seventh-largest private employer with 14,000 employees, has helped the project win key political support, including US Rep. Charles Rangel (D-Harlem) and Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who sent ESDC a letter backing the project.

“The project promises considerable long-term economic, educational, and civic benefits to the state and city of New York,” Bloomberg wrote.

The City Council late last year rezoned 35 acres, including the 17 acres Columbia would redevelop, by a 35-5 margin with five abstentions [BRN, Dec. 31, 2007].

Columbia is also touting agreements it reached with some West Harlem civic leaders and elected officials to spend millions of dollars on community projects recommended by groups that negotiated with the university.

Schick said ESDC had persuaded Columbia to spend another $20 million on projects to be decided by the Harlem Community Development Corp., a state redevelopment agency; and $1 million toward health sciences and medical technician training by the City University of New York.

Columbia also promised ESDC that it would fulfill a goal that 40 percent of the project’s construction work force consist of women and minorities, as well as spend millions of additional dollars on a variety of other community projects that include a shuttle bus linking the neighborhood and Columbia’s main campus, for senior citizens and people with disabilities; a mobile dental center for pre-schoolers; new space for programs serving seniors; a new disease education center for children; as well as “40 to 50” annual scholarships for youths and seniors, including tenants of nearby housing projects, for programs ranging from summer camps to evening classes.

Asked by BRN to quantify the cost, Schick replied: “Over time, it’s certainly an eight-figure sum. It’s a very substantial number.”

“We spoke to those in the community, the electeds and others, and asked, ‘What would make sense? What would work? What would help knit together this project into the fabric of the community,” Schick said. “This is really one neighborhood and one community; it’s not the campus, and then the residents. We wanted to integrate them as one.”

Those community benefits projects would be in addition to other Columbia commitments that include:

  • A $20 million fund to finance below-market “affordable” housing for West Harlem residents, $11.25 million toward upkeep of a new waterfront park for 25 years, and $4 million toward legal aid for tenants facing eviction or harassment by their landlords. Columbia promised to fund all three following talks with Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer; and
  • Another $76 million in neighborhood projects, under a deal brokered in December between the university the public-private West Harlem Local Development Corp., and several elected officials by City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, a Democrat and potential candidate in next year’s mayoral election.

The LDC’s decision to negotiate with Columbia without insisting on the university accepting an alternative land-use plan supported by critics of the Columbia project prompted Sprayregen and four other members of the development corporation board to resign in protest.

The critics insist Columbia should conform to a land-use guideline developed by Community Board 9 Manhattan, which serves West Harlem, under 197-a of the New York City Charter. The 197-a plan would have barred eminent domain and limited new academic research to a center for clean manufacturing or “Zero Waste Studies.” Columbia has opposed the 197-a plan, saying it would allow the university to build only 662,000 square feet of facilities, but no lab space.

Condemning Condemnation

Columbia’s general project plan would allow the state to condemn five properties whose owners have refused to sell to the university — a sore point with critics of Columbia’s project, who vowed last week to stop the state from using eminent domain in their neighborhood. To date, the university has reached agreements with property owners to acquire some 80 percent of the 17 acres it has slated for redevelopment.

La-Verna Fountain, a Columbia spokeswoman, told reporters after the meeting that the university continues to pursue talks for the properties not under its control, while its consultants develop drawings for the planned new buildings. She said the university would make additional comments in a forthcoming statement that had not been released at deadline.

Four of the five parcels not controlled by Columbia are owned by Sprayregen; the other parcel is a service station on West 125 St.

Sprayregen’s Tuck-It-Away Associates LP earlier this year sued the university, the city, and three of its boards, with the goal of stopping the project on environmental review grounds [BRN, March 31].

On July 21, state Supreme Court Justice Jane Solomon was due to decide whether to request additional oral arguments at a later date, in addition to the written reply to Columbia’s response to the original suit, said a lawyer representing Tuck-It-Away in the environmental-review lawsuit, Steven Silverberg of the White Plains, NY, law firm Silverberg & Zalantis. The case is known as Tuck-It-Away Associates LP, et. al, vs. City of New York, et. al (Index No. 104415/08).

It will be the latest skirmish in Sprayregen’s four-year fight against the Columbia plan.

“I’m angry. I’m angry that I have to wake up each day fighting on behalf of my family to keep what is lawfully ours. I’m angry that I have to fight the attempt, in broad daylight, of Columbia taking what does not belong to them,” Sprayregen said.

‘Layers of Conflict’

Tuck-It-Away this week prevailed in a separate court battle related to Columbia’s project — a two-year-old lawsuit against ESDC seeking access to communications between the agency and the consultant it hired to prepare the first of two studies concluding the West Harlem site Columbia wishes to redevelop was blighted, thus warranting state use of its eminent domain power.

That consultant, planning firm AKRF, is also a consultant to Columbia — a situation Tuck-It-Away and another plaintiff, the West Harlem Business Group, contend poses a conflict of interest that taints the original blight study. In it, AKRF concluded that the project site consists mainly of “aging, poorly maintained and functionally obsolete industrial buildings with little indication of recent reinvestment to revive their generally deteriorated condition.”

Two days before the ESDC adopted Columbia’s project plan, the New York State Supreme Court-Appellate Division, First Department, upheld a key portion of a year-old lower court decision ordering the release of e-mail correspondence between the state agency and Columbia’s planning consultant for the West Harlem project.

The appellate court upheld the state Supreme Court’s finding that ESDC must make public its correspondence with AKRF, agreeing with the lower court. ESDC had cited an exemption in state law it said allowed it to withhold the correspondence because it would impair present or imminent contract awards, or collective bargaining negotiations — one of several categories of intra- and inter-agency correspondence exchanged for discussion purposes that is exempt from disclosure.

Both courts disagreed with the state agency.

“The gargantuan size of the project, the layers of conflict between Columbia and ESDC, and the difficulty of offering perfectly objective advice while serving two masters elevates this FOIL [Freedom of Information Law] appeal beyond the average agency-consultant relationship that the FOIL exemptions are designed to foster and protect,” the appellate court ruled in Matter of Tuck-It-Away Associates L.P. v. Empire State Development Corp. (2008 NY Slip Op 06279), available here.

“We agree with [the] Supreme Court and hold that such a relationship creates an inseparable conflict for purposes of FOIL, and therefore for the purposes of invoking the agency exemption,” the appellate court concluded.

However, AKRF and ESDC prevailed over Tuck-It-Away and another plaintiff, the West Harlem Business Group, when the appellate court exempted from disclosure two categories of ESDC correspondence the lower court had ordered released in its original decision in May 2007.

Remaining exempt are intra-agency communications concerning how ESDC should respond to an inquiry from a member of the public about its role in the proposed project, and e-mail messages discussing the scheduling of meetings involving the project.

In its majority decision, a four-judge panel of the appellate court justified keeping those categories exempt by citing a recent decision from New York’s highest court, the state Court of Appeals.

“Opinions and recommendations that would, if prepared by agency employees, be exempt from disclosure under the Freedom of Information Law (FOIL) as intra-agency materials do not lose their exempt status simply because they are prepared for the agency, at its request, by an outside consultant,” the Court of Appeals stated.

Norman Siegel, a lawyer for Tuck-It-Away, told BRN last week the appellate decision set a precedent extending the reach of the state Freedom of Information Act by increasing access to government records for development applications.

“It also raises the specter of whether or not the ESDC process up to date is tainted,” Siegel said.

An example of that taint, Siegel said, would be AKRF’s criteria for determining blight, which included underuse of properties. A one-story building on a parcel allowing two-story buildings could have been defined as underused: “By definition, any one-story building, even if it’s structurally sound, would be blighted under their methodology.”

Siegel said the appellate decision could help Sprayregen and Tuck-It-Away beyond the government-records case — if, as he expects, ESDC ultimately approves the project plan later this year. New York state law directs appeals from eminent domain decisions be filed with the appellate division.

“We’ll be on the eminent domain track by the end of the year. And the eminent domain track could go all the way to, and include, the [US] Supreme Court,” Siegel told BRN after the ESDC vote.

Second Study

At the board meeting, Schick said ESDC had complied with the decision — and disclosed for the first time that the AKRF study wasn’t the only basis for finding Columbia’s project site to be blighted. He said ESDC earlier this year commissioned a second blight study — technically an audit of the AKRF report — by a consultant with no apparent tie to Columbia, Earth Tech, a study that came to the same finding as AKRF’s.

That disclosure touched off a heated five-minute exchange during the board meeting between Schick and a state Senator who represents the project site and several nearby neighborhoods.

State Sen. Bill Perkins (D-Harlem) angrily asked Schick why he failed to disclose the Earth Tech study during any of a dozen phone conversations the two men had stretching back weeks. The day of the board meeting, Perkins was quoted in the New York Sun newspaper as saying a second study should be undertaken.

“If I had known before I was interviewed that a second study had already been done, I would have hoped that I had seen it before this particular hearing. Why was not I told that such a study was in the works?” Perkins asked.

“Senator, with all respect,” Schick began.

“With all respect? You’re now starting to pay respect?” Perkins shouted.

Schick replied by acknowledging the topic had not been raised during their conversations, without elaborating why. Schick remained mum on the question when asked by BRN during the press Q&A why Perkins wasn’t told about the Earth Tech report.

Perkins — the ranking minority party member on the state Senate Committee on Corporations, Authorities and Commissions — told BRN after the meeting his panel was organizing a task force to examine the state’s use of eminent domain, with an eye to possible reform proposals.

“You have to restore faith in this type of process if we’re going to keep it. You cannot run roughshod over communities and get bonding opportunities, and have the community not feel as if their interests are being met,” Perkins said.

However, several bills that would limit the use of condemnation have stalled in the state Legislature since the US Supreme Court’s Kelo v. City of New London decision, 545 U.S. 469 (2005), which allowed the general benefits a community enjoys from economic growth as a permissible "public use" that warrants the taking by governments of private land for use by another private owner.

Answering other BRN questions, Schick said ESDC commissioned the Earth Tech report because two years had passed since the AKRF report, and the agency wanted to ensure its blight finding reflected more recent conditions.

“As the timelines lengthened, we said, ‘Why not go back and look again and see if we get the same results with somebody else?’ And we did. I think that’s a positive development. Some of the [elected] officials said we should do a second study, and we have,” Schick said. “It’s always good to have more eyes looking at it than fewer eyes looking at it.”

Schick denied the second study reflected concerns by ESDC about the AKRF study stemming from the litigation by Tuck-It-Away and the business group.

That litigation ended July 15 with the appellate court’s 14-page decision, issued by a majority of the four-judge panel led by presiding judge was Richard Andrias. Concurring fully with Andrias were appellate court judges James Catterson and Eugene Nardelli. The fourth judge, John Buckley, offered a two-and-a-half-page dissent that disagreed less with the majority’s decision than the reasoning behind it.

Buckley argued the majority interpreted the freedom of information law too broadly, so that someday FOIL applicants could force disclosure of agency-consultant correspondence just by alleging bias. The court should instead weigh whether the consultants in question “were the most qualified, lacked an actual conflict or bias, or gave the best possible advice.

“The result would be to deter agencies from eliciting recommendations from consultants and to inhibit good-faith consultants from rendering frank advice; that in turn, would negatively impact on the quality of agency decisions,” Buckley wrote. “I believe that the majority’s ruling will ultimately harm the quality of agency decisions.”

In This Week's Issue
Calif. State Senator Vows to Push Life-Sci Bill Without More Stem-Cell AmendmentsNew York State Agency ‘Adopts’ Columbia University’s $6.3B Mixed-Use Expansion
St. Louis Eyes Cleveland Consultancy to Assist in Rejuvenating ‘BioBelt’ Cluster
Minnesota Biomedical Research Program, University of Minnesota Center for Magnetic Resonance Research, Empire State Development Corp., Pall, South Carolina Research Authority, Medical University of South Carolina, Quebec Ministry of Economic Development Innovation and Export Trade, Genopole D’Evry, Medicago, Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development, Biotechnology Center at Elk Run, Ohio Tax Credit Authority, GammaStar Medical Devices
Empire State Development Corp., Fishers Economic and Community Development Commission, Hillsborough County Commission, ICON Central Laboratories, New Jersey Stem Cell Research Assistance Program, Kansas Bioscience Authority
Sandra Lawrence, Bill Sanford, Ed McKechnie, Sergio Garcia, Lisa Goldsborough, John Robson

Nave At St. John The Divine Reopens Years After Fire

Top Stories

Nave At St. John The Divine Reopens Years After Fire

Nearly eight years after a devastating fire, sections of the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in Morningside Heights were once again opened to the public Monday.

The nave – the aisle leading from the cathedral's entrance – was almost destroyed by a five-alarm fire on December 18, 2001. The blaze ravaged the cathedral book store and spread smoke and soot through most of the church. Even when the fire was finally extinguished, the damage continued.

"Those contaminants go into the stone and eat away at it, so you have to clean it or you would, after the fire, continue the deterioration of the Cathedral," said the Very Reverend Dr. James Kowalski of St. John the Divine.

But it wasn't until April 2006 that a massive $16.5 million cleaning and restoration project got underway. Workers carefully cleaned the stained glass, including the Great Rose window and they peeled away layers of grime from the fire and from years of regular church use.

During that time, visitors had to use a tunnel-like walkway built along the center aisle.

"I came in here about a month ago and noticed there was a wall instead of the whole middle path and I was wondering when I was going to be able to see the whole thing," said one visitor.

Workers dismantled the construction scaffolding Monday to reveal the newly-restored nave for the first time. Visitors, tourists and native New Yorkers said it was worth the wait.

"Of course it's nice to see it this way," said one visitor.

"It's much brighter. It's absolutely a totally different feeling," added another.

"It's really monumental," said one visitor. "It's very moving to be able to come in again, I have to say, since the last time I was here, it was filled with smoke and water all over the floor."

"It's a very impressive cathedral," said another, who was visiting from Australia.

The public will now also be able to see the interior view of the Tiffany rose window.

Now that the work on the nave is complete, the restoration will continue on the eastern half of the cathedral, where the organ will be reassembled.

"Everything has to be done by hand – making all the pneumatics, cleaning all the parts, cleaning the pipes - there are almost 8,500 speaking pipes in this organ ranging from seven-eighths of an inch to 32 feet long and that pipe weighs a ton," said organ curator Douglas Hunt.

It's expected to take several months to reassemble the organ, slated to finish just before November 30th, the 67th anniversary's of the nave's first dedication. That's when the entire cathedral will be rededicated.

The cathedral welcomes about 250,000 visitors every year.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Manhattan's Hidden Treasures: Morningside Park Provides 30 Unexpected Acres Of Green

Manhattan's Hidden Treasures: Morningside Park Provides 30 Unexpected Acres Of Green
As NY1’s week-long celebration of Manhattan’s best-kept secrets draws to a close, Borough Reporter Rebecca Spitz filed the following report on Morningside Park, a green oasis in Harlem.

In the shadow of the Cathedral of St. John the Divine lies the divine Morningside Park, 30 unexpected acres of green that were designated a historical landmark just this week.

"With the designation as a scenic landmark, this park will remain intact and all of its essential features basically as long as one can imagine -- that is to say, forever," said Landmarks Commissioner Robert Tierney.

Designed by renowned Central Park architects Fredrick Law Olmstead and Calvert Vaux, Morningside Park lies between 110th and 123rd Streets, between Morningside Drive and Manhattan and Morningside Avenues. It is lush land and winding walkways as far as the eye can see.

"The topography gives one the opportunity to get a view of Manhattan and a view of the entire city, in fact, from all kinds of perspectives," said Tierney.

From a perch on the top of the park, there are unparalleled views of Morningside Heights and Harlem.

Descending the majestic staircases into the park, visitors can find a world that couldn't be further from the city's hustle and bustle. "You pretty much lose yourself in the park, which makes you feel like you're not in New York, which is a good thing," said a park visitor.

The park’s waterfall is a natural draw, as are the park's softball fields, playgrounds and picnic tables.

"Look at it, it's beautiful,” said another visitor. “You've got the pond, you've got the waterfall, everything is beautiful, you can plant flowers and everything. I love it."

New Yorkers know a thing or two about people-watching, but in Morningside Park, they can practice turtle-watching.

"There's like at least five or six of them, and they sunbathe sometimes out on the rocks. It's nice," said another visitor.

But if reptiles aren't your passion, there are plenty of other things to see and to do: "I come out to practice, maybe basketball or football, whatever the case may be,” said a local. “But it's great place to be."

- Rebecca Spitz

Friday, July 18, 2008

Harlem Area Is Blighted, State Agency Declares

Date: Fri, 18 Jul 2008 10:02:35 EDT
Subject: Manhattanville Blighted, State Agency Declares (NYT article)
To: reysmont

FYI: NYT article: "Harlem Area Is Blighted, State Agency Declares":
Eric K. Washington
Author"Manhattanville: Old Heart of West Harlem" (Arcadia)

The New York Times
N.Y. / Region

Harlem Area Is Blighted, State Agency Declares

Published: July 18, 2008

The Empire State Development Corporation declared a 17-acre area of Harlem blighted on Thursday, a step toward forcing property owners to sell their land as part of eminent domain proceedings to make way for the expansion of Columbia University.

The long-awaited finding — that a slice of the west part of Harlem known as Manhattanville is full of deteriorating buildings — was part of the state development agency’s preliminary approval of the university’s $6.28 billion expansion plan.

The plan, which the agency is expected to formally approve in the fall, has been opposed by some Harlem residents, who fear being displaced by the university.

The expansion, which is to take place over 25 years, will transform a section of Upper Manhattan dominated by warehouses and auto-body shops into a campus with high-rise classrooms and laboratories, tree-lined streets and student housing.

All but a handful of the expansion zone’s existing buildings will be torn down to make room for the new campus, which Columbia officials have said will eventually include many of the university’s science and research facilities.

Columbia says it is short of space. On Thursday, Lee C. Bollinger, Columbia’s president, lauded the agency’s move.

“We are gratified by the Empire State Development Corporation’s adoption of a general project plan as the next step for a civic project that has moved forward with widespread support from local officials, elected representatives and a wide coalition of public interest groups committed to sustainable growth and vibrant urban neighborhoods,” President Bollinger said in a statement.

Much of the opposition to the expansion plan has been centered on Columbia’s refusal to pledge that it would not seek to have the state take over the privately owned land that the university has been unable to purchase.

Mr. Bollinger has promised not to ask the state to invoke eminent domain for the area’s residential buildings, which are home to about 300 people, but he has refused to make similar promises regarding the few commercial properties that have not been purchased by the university.

On Thursday, Columbia released its most direct statement to date about its intention to pursue eminent domain: “The university has requested that the E.S.D.C. consider exercising its eminent domain authority in order to ensure that commercial development in this old industrial area does not prevent the city and state from achieving the public interest goals in the proposed academic expansion, with all of the long-term economic, educational and civic benefits it will bring to the local economy and all New Yorkers.”

The university has said it owns about 90 percent of the private property in the area bounded roughly by Broadway on the east, Riverside Drive on the west, 133rd Street on the north and 129th Street on the south.

Two commercial property owners, however, have refused to sell. One of them is Nicholas Sprayregen, who owns four buildings in the expansion zone as part of his Tuck-It-Away Self-Storage moving and storage business.

Mr. Sprayregen has been vocal in his opposition to eminent domain and has vowed to fight the university to the Supreme Court if necessary. For months, his buildings have displayed giant banners that read “Stop Eminent Domain Abuse!”

On Thursday, Mr. Sprayregen, 44, vowed to continue fighting.

“It is clear that the voices of the community have been unsuccessful in dissuading Columbia University or the state from voluntarily backing off the threat of eminent domain,” he said. “We will go full steam ahead in preparing our defense.”

But on Thursday, many city and state lawmakers were aligned against Mr. Sprayregen.

Along with the press release announcing the development agency’s approval of the expansion plan were statements of approval from Gov. David A. Paterson, Representative Charles B. Rangel, Deputy Mayor Robert C. Lieber and state Assemblyman Keith L. T. Wright.

The project has been approved by the City Council and is supported by the Manhattan borough president, Scott M. Stringer.

On Thursday, the state development agency said that two separate studies had determined that the part of Harlem under consideration was “mainly characterized by aging, poorly maintained and functionally obsolete industrial buildings, with little indication of recent reinvestment to revive their generally deteriorated conditions.”

Opponents of the expansion, however, have said for months that the study’s findings were a foregone conclusion because the consulting firm that performed the blight analysis on behalf of the state — Allee King Rosen & Fleming Inc. — had previously conducted Columbia University’s environmental impact study for the expansion.

On Thursday, the state agency said that the consulting firm’s analysis had been audited by a second firm, Earth Tech Inc.

This week, a state appellate court upheld a decision ordering the development corporation to release documents regarding the expansion of Columbia University to Mr. Sprayregen because of the conflict of interest.

A public hearing on the project will probably be held in September, said Warner Johnston, an agency spokesman. A final vote will come after the hearing.

After that, businesses facing the possibility of eminent domain would have 30 days to present their arguments, officials said.

Columbia said on Thursday that it was willing to restart negotiations with the holdout businesses before eminent domain proceedings began.

“The university remains committed to reaching mutually beneficial agreements with the two remaining commercial property owners on these blocks,” Columbia said in a statement.