Open University

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In front of the 116th Street gate of Columbia University, Tom DeMott surveys the small knot of his neighbors milling about. As picketers fall into step, DeMott grabs his megaphone and leads a chant: “Stop eminent domain abuse in West Harlem! Stop eminent domain abuse in…wait a minute, it’s hard to shout ’eminent domain,’ isn’t it? Anyone have any ideas?”

Luisa Henriquez blows her whistle and giggles. But it’s no laughing matter for her: The building where she lives would be demolished under the university’s expansion plan.

The crowd of demonstrators grows to almost a hundred. Some bear signs with inflammatory slogans, such as “We are Defending Our Property Rights as Defined by the U.S. Constitution!” They begin to chant the names of small businesses: “Hands Off Tuck-it-Away! Hands off Pearlgreen!” All are located in Manhattanville, an area Columbia has identified as the site for an expansion of its upper Manhattan campus.

No tear gas, no riots, no revolutionary bombast. The real action isn’t on the streets this time, but in the realm of zoning policy. Activists, tenants, business leaders and urban planners are looking to negotiate the terms of Columbia’s expansion into Harlem by offering an alternative plan for development–one that would accommodate both the university’s growth and the community’s own goals. Most are not against Columbia’s expansion. They’re protesting how it may be done: through eminent domain.

Eminent domain is the state’s power to acquire private property for public use. In the hands of Robert Moses, it proved a powerful tool in reshaping the New York City landscape. The Cross-Bronx Expressway, Lincoln Center and Shea Stadium all resulted from the seizure of private land for a perceived public good. But a 1954 U.S. Supreme Court ruling broadened the scope of eminent domain to also allow private entities to use state power to acquire private property.

That’s how the New York Times acquired land for its recent expansion. The proposed Nets arena in Brooklyn and the stadium slated for midtown will also depend on eminent domain. As proposed by the university–as a self-contained campus–Columbia’s vision for Manhattanville will be impossible without it.

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The Columbia Campus

It’s envisioned as Columbia’s largest expansion since Seth Low moved the university from midtown to the empty headlands of Morningside Heights a hundred years ago. This April, Columbia unveiled its plans for a glittering new campus in Harlem. A collaborative effort between the architectural firm Renzo Piano Building Workshop and planners Skidmore Owings & Merrill, the roughly 18-acre campus will contain open green space, a new arts center, research facilities and dormitories.

Refurbished commercial thoroughfares will flow seamlessly into the Harlem waterfront, which itself is about to be redeveloped as part of the Economic Development Corporation’s West Harlem Master Plan. Columbia President Lee C. Bollinger has said that the university will be creating something of “immense vitality and beauty.” Columbia promises 9,500 new jobs and $5.5 billion in economic activity by the end of the 30-year build-out of the campus.

“Columbia sees this as an opportunity to realize the economic potential of the area,” says Jeremiah Stodt, director of Campus Plan and Facilities Management for the university. Noting the plan’s improvements to the area’s landscape, Stodt adds, “We think it makes a significant contribution to the character of the neighborhood.”

Unlike in its previous attempts at expansion, Columbia has invited Harlem along. The university has assiduously courted Congressman Charles Rangel, former Mayor David Dinkins and the entire spectrum of Harlem’s political and business leaders. In order to lay to rest the lingering memory of its ill-fated attempt in 1968 to build a gymnasium in Morningside Park, Columbia appointed an advisory council of business, community and clerical leaders to weigh in on the proposal.

As a first step, Columbia will be asking the Department of City Planning to rezone an area from 125th to 133rd streets, from Broadway to 12th avenues, which is currently limited to industrial uses. Located in the shadow of the Broadway IRT tracks, Manhattanville represents the remains of a once thriving manufacturing area. The Studebaker plant is long closed, and vanished too are the breweries and dairies that used to employ thousands. Left behind are vacant lots, an MTA bus depot, a Verizon facility and a handful of small businesses. There are approximately 1,600 jobs in the area, divided between government and the private sector.

In the last year and a half, Columbia has accelerated its property acquisition within the site; the university now estimates it owns 42 percent of the area. Its holdings include the hulking Studebaker factory, which houses the Alexander Doll Company’s 80 U.S. employees, and the old Prentice Hall building.

But under its current plan, Columbia would need all of it. The university has said it intends to go through the the city’s Uniform Land Use Review Process (ULURP) in order to have the industrial zone redesignated as “mixed use.” Under ULURP, the proposal will journey from Community Board through the Borough President’s office for recommendations, then to the City Planning Commission. If the commission approves it, it moves on to the City Council, and, with a majority vote, from there to the desk of the mayor. The process can be stopped at any point from City Council on up.

Following rezoning, the first 10-year stage of Columbia’s development will be the construction of its Arts Center, a central quadrangle (including a park), a science building and the refurbishment of Prentice Hall and the Studebaker Factory.

Columbia has already made itself highly visible around Manhattanville. Officials have attended numerous community board and advisory council meetings and placed op-eds in the Amsterdam News. Officials attending local meetings frequently speak of “transparency” and a “collaborative community planning process.”

At the same time, the university has released few concrete details about its plans. The download on its website consists chiefly of aerial photographs, statistics from planners at the consulting firm Appleseed and breezy watercolors of hypothetical Harlemites walking in the sunshine reflected from glass building fronts.

The Columbia plan has so far been presented as an all-or-nothing proposition. Columbia officials have acknowledged that the university has opened talks with the city Economic Development Corporation and Empire State Development Corporation about using the power of eminent domain to acquire private property they are unable to purchase.

Stoldt says that the university is continuing negotiations with Manhattanville property owners. Acquistion through eminent domain, he adds, does remain as a last resort. As to whether Columbia is contemplating any changes in its plans, Stoldt says, “It’s really too early at this point to consider alternatives.”

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The Alternative

The lack of information is frustrating for those who want to figure out an alternative plan for Manhattanville that would accommodate both Columbia and community–that would allow for university development and the jobs and economic activity it will bring, without displacing everything that’s there now. “They’re very cautious,” says Mercedes Narciso of the Pratt Institute Center for Community and Environmental Development (PICCED), which has for the last year been helping community residents and businesses formulate their own urban plan for Manhattanville. “They don’t reveal what they’re doing as they’re doing it. We see everything on a piecemeal basis, little by little.”

Narciso wants to see Columbia’s plans because she’s working with Manhattan Community Board 9 to help shape them. Under section 197-A of the City Charter, communities can formulate their own plans for land use and development, and CB9 is now racing to get its own 197-A plan for Manhattanville through ULURP and in to City Planning. So far, the community plan is moving ahead faster than Columbia’s. In late October, it passed CB9 and will come before the borough president and the City Council within the next year.

It’s been 13 years in the making. City Planning rejected a version in 1998 because–like many such documents–it amounted to an unworkable wish list. (It was titled “Sharing Diversity Through Community Action.”) This time around, under the guidance of Narciso and former PICCED director and City Planning Commissioner Ron Shiffman, the board is going to play hardball. Community boards have no legal power over land use; what they do have, potentially, is political leverage. “This isn’t a silver bullet,” cautions Shiffman. “It’s a basis for negotiation.”

The community plan divides Manhattanville into three areas: one for light manufacturing, one geared toward arts and entertainment, and a mixed-use district. These could accommodate existing businesses–and the university. Instead of a separate campus, Columbia’s facilities would be part of a neighborhood streetscape.

Board members hope their plan will present a viable alternative to Columbia’s seizure of the entire area. Already, Robert Jackson, councilman for the CB9 district, has taken the position that Columbia’s plan must fit into the community’s 197-A plan, not the other way around.

Board member Maritta Dunn, who is the executive director of the Harlem Valley Heights Community Development Corporation and a member of Columbia’s Community Advisory Council, says that she and her neighbors are not antidevelopment. What she won’t tolerate, she explains, is the displacement of existing businesses. “A 30-year plan with eminent domain in place rapes this community,” says Dunn. She says she’s confident that, with rezoning and the planned waterfront redevelopment, West Harlem will thrive economically no matter what, and she sees no need to hand over the whole area. “Columbia isn’t doing us any favors!” says Dunn.

To prep elected officials for ULURP, Dunn has conducted walking tours of the neighborhood and its businesses. Manhattan Borough President C. Virginia Fields–who, along with the community board, will submit a recommendation to the City Planning Commission–is siding with Dunn and her neighbors. “On the issue of eminent domain, I fully support the community board,” says Fields. “I have suggested to Columbia that we may need to convene a meeting with all of the electeds and look at everything that is in the plan.”

Fields is also the most prominent endorser of CB9’s demand for a community benefits agreement with Columbia. Community benefits agreements, or CBAs, have become popular tools for corporations and communities to negotiate the terms of major real estate development–though not, until now, in New York.

The Staples Center in Los Angeles spent seven months developing a CBA with the surrounding community. Several universities, including Harvard, Penn and Temple, have used them to come to terms with their neighbors before embarking on expansion programs. CBAs can cover anything from minority contracting and job training programs to environmental impact and traffic flow.

The Community Board 9 plan calls for any rezoning to include an accompanying CBA. A benefits agreement was also one of the key recommendations of the Community Advisory Committee in its report to Bollinger in July.

Columbia says it’s prepared to negotiate. “We’re not ruling it out,” says Stodt. “Certainly there’s an advantage to codifying our relationship to the community. We’re just trying to figure out what format it will take. A lot depends on who’s involved. We want to be as representantive as possible.” As for CB9’s role, Stodt says, “They would have a seat at the table.”

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Eminent Domain

Facing an uncertain political process, Columbia has continued its efforts to acquire property. When six neighborhood businesses reported being pressured by Columbia’s real estate agents, Dunn and Shiffman put them in touch with attorney Norman Siegel, who has since agreed to represent them as the West Harlem Business Group. Says Siegel, “What excites me here is the combination of the small businesses, community activists and tenants all working together.”

Siegel also sees an opportunity to challenge the broad scope of New York State’s eminent domain laws–specifically the state’s power to transfer property from one private owner to another. Across the country, courts are forcing state and local governments to reexamine their eminent domain laws, and in particular how “public benefits” are defined. In Michigan, a recent court decision overturned a 1982 ruling that allowed General Motors to expand at the expense of a residential neighborhood. Right now, the U.S. Supreme Court is preparing to hear the case of homeowners in New London, Connecticut, whose land is scheduled to be seized for use in a private development project.

The scope of New York State’s eminent domain power hasn’t been challenged in decades. And Siegel’s not taking any chances. He wants to make certain that Columbia stays on the ULURP track for its proposed rezoning plan–and thus remain accountable to local elected officials. He is hopeful the university will negotiate. “I hope we don’t have to litigate,” he says. “But if we can’t resolve this in the court of public opinion then we will resolve it in a court of law.” •

Bob Roberts is a Bronx-based freelance writer.