Columbia Renounces (Some) Eminent Domain

Columbia University announced today that it will not seek to take over people’s homes through eminent domain, a huge step in addressing one of the most controversial aspects of its expansion into West Harlem.

“Columbia University will not ask the state to invoke eminent domain to evict tenants living in these 132 residential units,” Robert Kasdin, the university’s senior executive vice president, said in a press release. The announcement came two days after the school presented its proposal to rezone 17 acres of West Harlem to make way for classroom buildings and research labs—and also two days after the community board unanimously approved an alternative plan that, among other items, strongly argued against eminent domain.

“I think that’s a great first step,” said Patricia Jones, the president of the West Harlem Development Corporation and a member of the local community board.

Columbia did not specify how exactly it would treat properties in the proposed footprint where tenants wished to remain. Mr. Kasdin also expressly left open the possibility of using eminent domain to take over commercial properties.

Richard Lipsky, a lobbyist representing Tuck-It-Away, a storage facility company with five buildings in the footprint that has resisted selling to Columbia, said it was a divide-and-conquer strategy intended to bolster support for the plan at the expense of business owners.

“It demonstrates what we have said all along,” Mr. Lipsky said, “and that is Columbia's plan can be modified and there is room for compromise.”

Here’s the full release (dated yesterday although made public today):

 

With Support from City Councilman Robert Jackson,

Columbia University Confirms NO Eminent Domain Will be Sought

to Relocate Residents Living in Manhattanville Apartments

New York, July 11, 2007 – Columbia University has announced that it would not ask the Empire State Development Corp. to use its condemnation authority as a way of evicting residential tenants now living in the 132 apartment units in residential buildings on the 17 acres of the proposed expansion area.

“Columbia University will not ask the state to invoke eminent domain to evict tenants living in these 132 residential units in the proposed expansion zone in Manhattanville,” said Senior Executive Vice President Robert Kasdin, reaffirming comments made on Monday before the City Planning Commission. “We are absolutely committed to ensuring that these community members will have equal or better affordable housing in the area, and we are working to achieve this result.” Kasdin also made it clear that this includes a commitment to work with New York City’s Department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD) to provide cooperative units to those occupants eligible to purchase units through the city’s Tenant Interim Lease (TIL) Program. As a result, the TIL participants would not lose any of their rights under the program because of relocation.

On Monday, July 9, Columbia University presented its rezoning proposal for the old manufacturing area of Manhattanville in West Harlem in a special meeting of the New York City Planning Commission. Kasdin explained to commissioners that the University’s continued goal is to acquire all commercial and residential property through the kind of win-win negotiated agreements it has already reached with the great majority of private owners, including a number of business owners who originally said they would not sell to Columbia.

“The residents of West Harlem have been extremely concerned about the impact of Columbia University’s plans to expand its campus in the West Harlem area over the next 25 years,” said City Councilmember Robert Jackson. “I have facilitated discussion between the University and the community in order to address concerns ranging from secondary displacement, to traffic patterns and the bulk of buildings, to the environmental impact of proposed scientific research facilities, among others. No potential problem has been more threatening for the residents of West Harlem than the use of eminent domain. I am pleased today that Columbia University is exhibiting a level of respect and awareness by choosing not to seek the application of eminent domain against the 132 residents living the area of the proposed expansion. I look forward to continuing to work with the University and the community to address the myriad of other challenges associated with Columbia’s proposed expansion.”

The site of the proposed expansion of University facilities, which would occur over the next quarter century, is a 17-acre area just north of Columbia’s historic Morningside Heights campus and consists primarily of the four large blocks from 129th to 133rd streets between Broadway and 12th Avenue, including the north side of 125th Street. The new facilities would also include three properties on the east side of Broadway from 131st to 134th streets. The majority of the construction in the proposed initial phase of the project would occur on the block bounded by 129th and 125th streets on the south and 130th Street on the north, between 12th Avenue and Broadway.

Kasdin did not remove the possibility of requesting that the state invoke eminent domain to assemble the few commercial properties that remain in the proposed 17-acre expansion area. Columbia’s ownership of these acres would not only allow for the creation of publicly accessible open spaces, but also for the construction of new buildings that will be serviced by a large contiguous underground space that houses such essential services as parking, loading and energy facilities. This approach allows a proposed urban design for the area that is environmentally friendly, that meets the University’s academic programming needs with a building scale lower than existing neighboring buildings, and that is focused on creating vibrant urban street life instead of driveways, loading docks and other functions that inhibit openness and civic interaction on sidewalks. This will also allow the University to construct the kind of academic research buildings with the floor space needed for the type of research and study that confronts some of the most critical health issues facing the community and world such as strokes, Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease.

Columbia projects that the expansion in Manhattanville will create 6,000 new University jobs, as well as an average of 1,200 construction jobs per year for nearly a quarter century. The University has a strong record of employing community residents with a wide range of skills and experience in the workforce, as well as the engagement of minority-, women- and locally owned contractors – many of which are already playing key roles on Columbia’s architecture and construction management teams. Over the past four years, more than one-third of University spending on construction, repair and maintenance – worth more than $65 million in 2006 alone – went to minority-, women- or locally owned firms in Upper Manhattan or the South Bronx. To learn more about the University’s proposed expansion, visit www.campusplan.columbia.edu. The site is in both English and Spanish.

About Columbia University

A leading academic and research university, Columbia continually seeks to advance the frontiers of knowledge and to foster a campus community deeply engaged in understanding and addressing the complex global issues of our time. Columbia's extensive public service initiatives, cultural collaborations, and community partnerships help define the University’s underlying values and mission to educate students to be both leading scholars and informed, engaged citizens. Founded in 1754 as King’s College, Columbia University in the City of New York is the fifth oldest institution of higher learning in the United States. For more information, visit http://www.columbia.edu.