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For Columbia expansion in W. Harlem, a tougher road harvesting community support

There are some curious contrasts and commonalities between Columbia University’s proposed expansion and Forest City Ratner’s Atlantic Yards plan, and they became clearer last night at a raucous public hearing held by Manhattan Community Board 9 regarding a rezoning for Columbia’s project, which would mainly occupy an area bounded by Broadway and Riverside Drive between 129th Street and 133rd Street.
(Photos by Jonathan Barkey)

I only spent an hour at the hearing, so, just as I’ve criticized the press for missing aspects of the Atlantic Yards story, I’ll admit I can’t yet do the Columbia controversy justice. I’m still reading about it all. (The people in the t-shirts are from the Mirabal Center, a tenants rights group.)

Quick: here's a 5/21/06 New York Times Magazine overview. Here's a good list of articles. Here’s a Columbia site, which argues that Columbia needs a contiguous nearby footprint, including a deep “bathtub” for parking and power plants, will bring 6000 jobs and add numerous community amenities, and contribute to the university’s mission, including world-changing scientific research. (Though Columbia's presenting its project in the best light, it has surely offered more details than did Forest City Ratner. And Columbia at least honestly calculates about construction jobs.)

Here’s an opposing coalition, who question the safety of the “bathtub,” warn that the open space will feel private, and argue for a community-driven plan that preserves manufacturing jobs, opens up development to multiple parties, stresses affordable housing, and eschews the use of eminent domain.

And here’s the Community Board chairman’s blog, which shows that, at the end of the night, the land use committee voted nearly unanimously that the board as a whole oppose the Columbia plan unless it changes significantly, including: withdrawal of the proposal for eminent domain and gag orders on those selling; abandonment of the “bathtub” plan; a significant affordable housing commitment; a commitment to preserve historic buildings; meet the goals of the community plan regarding job creation, public space, and other issues. (CB 9's 197-a plan has been developed with the Pratt Center for Community Development.)

And here's the Department of City Planning's Draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS).

Lucky Bruce

But the single strongest impression, for me, was that Columbia University President Lee Bollinger is not so lucky as Forest City Ratner CEO Bruce Ratner, a graduate of Columbia Law School. Ratner appears only at scripted public events and, even then, such as when the Barclays Center deal was announced in January, his press availability is rather limited.

Ratner never had to testify at a public hearing related to Atlantic Yards. His then-lieutenant, the mysteriously departed Jim Stuckey, twice addressed City Council hearings, spoke at a contentious informal meeting of three affected community boards, and spoke at smaller informal sessions each board held. But no Forest City rep, however was required to speak at the two hearings that counted most, held by the Empire State Development Corporation (ESDC) in October 2005 and August 2006.

Bollinger, however, does not have the ESDC’s fast-track process behind Columbia’s proposed expansion into West Harlem (aka Manhattanville). The city’s Uniform Land Use Review Procedure (ULURP) requires a gamut of hearings, including before the local community board, even though its role is only advisory. (The three affected community boards expressed opposition to or withheld support for Atlantic Yards, but their concerns vaporized in the ESDC process.) And Columbia is a nonprofit institution dedicated to academic inquiry, not a real estate developer dedicated to maximizing shareholder value.

So Bollinger had to speak last night, even though he knew Columbia’s 17-acre plan for new academic facilities has generated intense opposition in a community already suspicious of gentrification and a university which has increased its land holdings while causing a historically tense relationship with its Harlem neighbors. And even though Columbia has garnered—in some cases at considerable cost, notes the Harlem Tenants Council—not insignificant community support for the Manhattanville project, Bollinger was walking into a lion’s den.

The signs outside the Manhattanville Community Center in the Manhattanville Houses warned of the “Columbia Hurricane,” leading to residential displacement and threatening the community with biohazards. Representatives from the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) handed out fliers arguing that Columbia underpays its security guards. For the Atlantic Yards hearing last August, the construction and building services unions, along with BUILD, ACORN, helped (many believe, including the chairperson of Brooklyn CB 2) unfairly pack the room in favor of the project, at least at the beginning.

The room, with fewer than 200 chairs, was packed with at least another 100 standees, and scores more waited outside. [Update: The chairman of the CB writes that there were more chairs, and about 600 people attended in total.] On each chair was a copy of a 2/25/07 Daily News article with an astonishingly slanted headline: Columbia Launches Land-Grab Plan, placed by the Coalition to Preserve Community, or CPC (but not to be confused with the Community Preservation Corporation, which is behind the New Domino plan in Williamsburg).

There was no stage for the speakers. And the acoustics were lousy—too little amplification for the large room, especially given the steady murmurs in the crowd, which quickly ramped up to booing and cheering.

(Update) Outside, reported the Columbia Spectator:
Confusion began before the public comment period, when participants in a program calls the Addicts Rehabilitation Center-run by Rev. Reginald Williams of the United Missionary Baptist Association-stood outside the community center, handing out leaflets supportive of Columbia. Few knew why they were there or what they were doing.

Urban design?

So leadoff speaker Marilyn Taylor of Skidmore, Owings, and Merrill, a blue-chip architectural firm, was out of her element as the restive crowd proved uninterested in her explanations, backed by photos and renderings (right) that few could see, of why Columbia’s urban design would be a major step forward.

“An active ground-floor layer of shops and open space” that help connect to the waterfront may sound good to some comparing Columbia’s plan to the current array of light manufacturing uses in Manhattanville, but that wasn’t the purpose of the hearing. (Atlantic Yards opponents have pointed out that the project should’ve gone through ULURP; those arguments may be strong, but let’s not kid ourselves; ULURP does not guarantee that the public is either hearing or listened to. There will be further public hearings held by the Manhattan Borough President, the City Planning Commission, and the City Council, which, unlike with Atlantic Yards, has a vote in this case.)

There would be no loss of streets, Taylor stressed—again, a good point if you compare Columbia’s plan to the Atlantic Yards superblocks or even the superblock public housing project just outside. The plan would be very different from the gated and fenced Morningside Heights campus. And “almost 100,000 square feet” of new public space sounds good, right? (Well, actually, it’s just a little over two acres—a net gain, but not a huge percentage of 17 acres. Atlantic Yards would have eight of 22 acres as open space, but, then again, it would introduce a huge new population.)

And all the buildings, she said, would fit into the neighborhood around them, with none taller than the 320-foot-tall 3333 Broadway, a notably dense complex just north of the site, with 1190 apartments. It recently left the Mitchell-Lama program, with attendant fears of displacement. (The maximum building height in Columbia's project would be 260 feet, plus an additional 20 to 60 feet for mechanical equipment.)

In fact, the Columbia expansion zone is directly bordered in several places by significant density, as the graphic below shows—far more towers than immediately surround the Atlantic Yards footprint. And while there’s some low-rise walk-up housing nearby and actually within the Columbia expansion site, none is of the vintage of brownstone Prospect Heights.

Enter Dinkins

Then longtime Harlemite David Dinkins, the former mayor and now Columbia professor, stepped up to the microphone, to introduce the Columbia president. “Oh no,” exclaimed one person from the audience. “Oh yes,” responded Dinkins, who’s come out as a supporter of the project. (He wrote a Times op-ed.) And then the boos and cheers drowned out discourse for a while.

“We can disagree,” Dinkins started.

“You’re a traitor,” bellowed a man from the crowd, dissing the city's first black mayor.

Nearby my seat, two Harlemites, a black man and a black woman, revved up into a quick dispute over Columbia, with the man finally showing a trump card. “You weren’t back there in the ‘50s,” he charged.

Dinkins talked about Bollinger’s history, at the University of Michigan, of supporting affirmative action, urging the crowd to grant him “the respect and credibility” the university president deserved.

Bollinger on stage

When Bollinger took the mike (photo shows Dinkins in background), it again took a while for the noise to subside. He proceeded gamely, with a look of grim determination. I heard him mention his wife, and a previous stint at Columbia, and his aim to help the institution, and how it helped the community—one example was staffing a local hospital.

The rest was inaudible. He looked relieved when it was over. But it wasn’t. One of the first speakers, an environmental attorney, said, “I’d like to see that [former] Lee Bollinger stand up to this community,” criticizing Columbia’s failure to work with the community. Columbia recently hired veteran Democratic operative Bill Lynch, at $40,000 a month, to organize the community.

Eminent domain

But Columbia had some supporters. One man explained how Columbia relocated his 60-person company to the Studebaker Building, one of three major historic buildings in the project footprint, part of Manhattanville's automotive history, that would be preserved. (Opponents say more buildings deserve preservation; Atlantic Yards, by contrast, would involve no such preservation.)

“Columbia has been a very strong partner,” he said, adding, in a line echoing former ESDC Chairman Charles Gargano, “We cannot stop progress.” (Was this speaker, as with some Brooklyn property owners who sold to Forest City Ratner, obligated to testify in favor of the project?)

Columbia has committed to not using eminent domain to acquire the 132 apartments within the project zone. That’s a step forward from Atlantic Yards, but it leaves open the question: what if some people refuse to leave? Perhaps because all those units are in what would be the second phase of the project, Columbia can afford to wait it out.

The university now owns or controls at least 80 percent of the project site (clarification: if you consider expected public property that would be conveyed), but several major commercial property owners have resisted the threats of eminent domain and in fact have presented their own plans to develop new space over their properties.

The biggest landowner, Nick Sprayregen of Tuck-It-Away storage, has contributed hundreds of thousands of dollars to the fight against Columbia. No such deep-pocketed local businessperson has emerged in the Atlantic Yards fight, as Develop Don’t Destroy Brooklyn is funded significantly by donations from residents.

Sprayregen has a right to pursue his plans, but he's not what CPC was describing in last night's handout, which stressed that eminent domain “historically abuses communities of color and low and moderate income people.” Then again, his goals are in concert with the community plan, so he’s hardly an outrider, either.

When I exited, a man wearing a sticker saying “Coalition for the Future of Manhattanville” handed me a slick Columbia brochure about the project’s benefits. Dozens of people wore such stickers inside the hearing, and I was told they were recruited from a job training center. If so, they weren't all on message; at the hearing, a guy next to me wearing the sticker was booing Columbia.

(Update) The Columbia Spectator reports that the coalition has been formed by consultant Bill Lynch.

Some contrasts

Forest City Ratner claims that 22-acre, 8 million square-foot Atlantic Yards would take a decade, in two phases, but even project landscape architect Laurie Olin has said it could take twice that long. Columbia acknowledges that its 17-acre, 6.8 million square-foot project (with 2 million square feet below grade) would take 22 years, in two phases. (If that's their prediction, add extra time for contingencies.) Columbia’s first phase, according to the map at right, even is in wedge form, not unreminiscent of the AY footprint at Atlantic and Flatbush avenues.

Given that both Atlantic Yards and the Columbia plan could lead to indirect displacement of thousands of locals (2920 and 3293 respectively), why hasn’t such a fierce response to Atlantic Yards come from low-income Brooklynites? For one thing, the population most at risk--people in unregulated apartments subject to increasing rents--is a decent distance away, in Gowanus, or Crown Heights, or Bedford-Stuyvesant.

There’s no local equivalent of the Harlem Tenants Council to represent them; one potential group might be ACORN, which instead partnered with Forest City Ratner to include 900 low-income units, albeit over the life of the project, which could be ten to 20 years.

Also, there’s relatively little low-income housing bordering the AY footprint. While the president of the tenants council at the Atlantic Terminal 4B project has criticized Atlantic Yards, Forest City Ratner wisely recruited leaders from the Gowanus Houses and the Mitchell-Lama housing in Fort Greene for its CBA. (And Forest City has paid undisclosed sums to CBA signatories.) It got the fledgling job-training BUILD on board, thanks to Assemblyman Roger Green and his aide Randall Toure, who then went to work for Ratner. Some ministers of Brooklyn churches with mostly black congregations have opposed the project, but their flocks have not come out in force.

And Forest City Ratner lined up Mayor Mike Bloomberg, Borough President Marty Markowitz, Senator Chuck Schumer and numerous other officials even before the project was announced. The arena proposal was meant to help restore Brooklyn’s identity for those of the Markowitzian generation (and others). It was pitched as something for the greater good of the borough, so the nearby communities got less attention—and the state’s land use review process enforced that.

And Forest City Ratner had the press. Starchitect-loving New York Times critic Herbert Muschamp, for example, upon the announcement of Atlantic Yards, declared it a "Garden of eden" replacing "an open railyard," a gross inaccuracy. Columbia has a starchitect, too, Renzo Piano, but there's not the same audience for starchitecture in Harlem.

Going forward

Columbia might argue that its project is for the greater good of the borough, city, and even world, but it’s got more to do, even with the help of go-to (as the New York Observer has noted) environmental consultants ARKF, who've also been working on Atlantic Yards. Forest City Ratner proposed affordable housing early on. Columbia’s plan did not at first include affordable housing, but the university is wising up.

It’s possible that the Manhattanville plan, with new housing guarantees, will win more local support. The New York Times has withheld editorial support, hinting that affordable housing would tip the balance. The Times has always in editorials supported Atlantic Yards, albeit calling for tweaks, but then again the Brooklyn project is being built by the parent company's business partner in the new Times Tower. (No, I don't think the business relationship causes biased news coverage, but I do think it affects the editorials. And, given the relationship, I do think the Times has an obligation to be exacting in its news coverage, and it hasn't done so, for whatever reasons.)

There’s a CBA to be negotiated with the West Harlem Local Development Corporation, a body that’s been criticized but is nonetheless more representative than that which “negotiated” the CBA for Atlantic Yards. The ESDC is going to have to find the area blighted to pursue eminent domain. The designation of blight, as with the Atlantic Yards site, will, like other issues regarding the Columbia plan, be the subject of intense contentiousness.


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