Columbia’s Expansion Enters Endgame

At the same time, when Columbia tried to work with Harlem, that cooperation occasionally bit back. The school incorporated suggestions it heard from a series of public meetings four years ago into the design of the expansion: ground-floor retail, an absence of gates, and green space, all intended to open up the proposed campus in a way that the current 116th Street one is not. Yet those elements were almost taken for granted by the time the proposal made the rounds of the community board.

What is more, Columbia agreed early on to negotiate a “community benefits agreement” under which the university would promise job-training programs and support for affordable housing. But in pledging to negotiate with only one organization that claimed to represent the community, it had little choice but to shut down discussions with others—one of whom, the Rev. Calvin O. Butts III, the prominent pastor of Abyssinian Baptist Church, complained publicly about the shut-down on cable television. (At the same time, however, Columbia went ahead with separate negotiations with Manhattan Borough President Scott M. Stringer when it was his turn to weigh in on the proposal. He endorsed it.)

Perhaps the biggest complaint among dissenters was Columbia’s reaction to the local community board’s 32-2 vote against the expansion in August. The board attached 10 conditions that it wanted changed, ranging from forswearing eminent domain to a higher standard of environmental design than what the university has committed to. While Columbia has made a few gestures to address a couple of these items—such as building more than 800 apartments on the new campus to house university affiliates—it has so far stayed silent on others, such as landmarking historic buildings in the footprint.

“I think Columbia was probably even more arrogant than Forest City Ratner,” said Ron Shiffman, a Pratt Institute professor who acted as a consultant to the community board, referring to the developer of Atlantic Yards in Brooklyn. “They completely disregarded all of the modifications that the community board suggested.”

Last week, Columbia took a potentially huge step to reduce the need for eminent domain when it began negotiating with Mr. Sprayregen, owner of Tuck-It-Away Self-Storage, to trade properties instead of seizing them. But it remains to be seen whether those negotiations continue after the City Council vote, or were merely a way to look cooperative.

 

THE UNIVERSITY SEEMED to make it easier for those opposed to it by rolling out its plans early; taking a long time to get its paperwork finished; and only belatedly lining up supporters who would be willing to take to the mike at public hearings. It hired former David Dinkins aide Bill Lynch as far back as last December to form a coalition, although it took until this August for the group to go public. The Coalition for the Future of Manhattanville now lists 20 groups or individuals, some of them quite prominent—like Hazel Dukes, the president of the New York State conference of the N.A.A.C.P.—yet the very manufactured characteristic of this coalition has given die-hard opponents another reason to grumble.

La-Verna Fountain, a Columbia spokeswoman, questions the depth of the community opposition.

“I think it is interesting that when people say ‘community,’ they paint it with very broad strokes,” she told The Observer. “There are certainly very strong, viable voices that are very much in support of this.”

Certainly, among the strongest voices are the ones who are voting and making decisions on this matter. No matter how hard Columbia found it to convert certain elements of the community, it reached out early to the most prominent elected officials and won their support, among them Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Congressman Charles Rangel. City Council members were attracted to the promise of 6,000 new jobs and a substantial contribution to an affordable housing fund.

But Columbia wasn’t able to convince everybody.