A paid consultant to Columbia University has been working to form a grass-roots coalition to come out vocally in support of the school’s plan to build a campus in West Harlem.
Bill Lynch, a former deputy mayor and well-known Harlem figure, said he has been working for about eight months to get elected officials, community organizations and minority-owned businesses to go public with their support for the new campus, which is expected to employ 6,000 people once it is fully built out 25 or 30 years from now.
“They are supportive of the expansion because of the jobs they have heard about and their past involvement in Columbia,” Mr. Lynch said in an interview. “Most people don’t know how many people in the community are employees or alumni of Columbia and we want to bring them together in this coalition.”
Mr. Lynch said he would announce who was in the coalition “in the next couple of weeks.” He said the members would speak at hearings before the community board and City Planning Commission, write op-eds and speak to the press. Sunshine, Sachs and Associates, a boutique public relations firm known for representing celebrities, is helping with media strategy.
The next few months are crucial for Columbia to show support for its land-use plan, which would rezone 17 acres of largely industrial land, west of Broadway and north of 125th Street, into mixed-use academic buildings and open space. The local community board, which has severe reservations about certain aspects of the plan, is supposed to take an advisory vote in August; next, it will come before the Manhattan borough president, the Planning Commission and the City Council.
One example of the coalition’s work to surface so far was a flyer, handed out at community meetings at Columbia in July, titled “Inform and Empower Our West Harlem Community.” The flyer accused Nick Sprayregen, an owner of a storage company in the footprint, of being an “outsider” who underpaid his employees and was counterproposing a rezoning for the same area as Columbia’s new campus that would bring luxury housing.
Mr. Sprayregen, in an interview, refuted the charges, saying that the labor problem was one of mistakenly classifying managers as salaried employees, for which he agreed to a $95,000 goodwill settlement. He said his land-use proposal did not mention affordable housing because that is not a zoning matter, but that he did not believe that Harlem needed high-priced housing.
“I’m extremely disappointed at the lowball tactics of Columbia University, that they would have to resort to personal accusations and twisting of irrelevant issues to try to discredit me,” Mr. Sprayregen said. Mr. Sprayregen also faces a movement to remove him from the local development corporation that is negotiating with Columbia over the expansion.
The flyer was produced by the Baptist Ministers Evening Conference of Greater New York City & Vicinity, a member of the pro-Columbia coalition. The Rev. Reggie Williams, an official with the conference, said that it was intended to counter the public relations drive that Mr. Sprayregen—who has hired a lobbyist and lawyer to fight Columbia—has himself launched.
“He is using his money to become the face and voice of the opposition,” Mr. Williams said. “I think there is a conflict of interest between his interests and the interest of the community.