Lee Bollinger, the president of Columbia University, knew from the get-go that in order to expand, he had to win over Harlem. He and his aides went to great lengths to get neighborhood leaders to see what a new campus could do for them.
Somehow, months or even years later, Harlem, or at least a vocal portion of it, is still not convinced. At a Dec. 12 City Council hearing, Mr. Bollinger drew a groan from the audience when he posited that there existed “a sense that we have established trust between Columbia University and the surrounding neighborhood”—a groan that was loud enough to draw gaveling and an admonishment from the City Council member chairing the meeting.
The opposition may not matter in the end: The City Council was expected to ratify on Dec. 19 or, at the latest, by mid-January, with just a few symbolic "nay" votes, the rezoning that would make the 17-acre campus in West Harlem possible.
But why, if the university spent all this time—not to mention money—trying to reach out to Harlem, do so many people feel that Columbia has not been listening?
Early on, Mr. Bollinger spoke of the need to overcome the town-gown tensions of the past, and several instruments were set up to forge a cooperative relationship. Community advisory meetings were held and a turning point in the relationship was promised.
“I think now I was incredibly naïve in thinking that we could work together on this,” said Jordi Reyes-Montblanc, the chairman of the local community board. “They did nothing to actually change their plan when we raised objections to it.”
A pastor of a West Harlem church on the edge of the expansion zone, the Rev. Earl Kooperkamp of St. Mary’s Episcopal, was more moderate in his appraisal, though nonetheless skeptical.
“Columbia has resources and a good vision, and that’s a good thing,” he said. “But all too often there has been a dialogue to the deaf. I’m not sure Columbia has been hearing it.”
To some extent, any plan to build seven million square feet of anything anywhere would run into resistance. The transformation of the proposed site—most of it between Broadway and 12th Avenue from 125th to 133rd streets—would be total. A low-slung manufacturing area with dissolving sidewalks is about to be turned into a new-fangled campus with gleaming 25-story buildings. Just two or three historic buildings are to be preserved under Columbia’s plan. The current residents would be moved, somehow with their consent.
From Columbia’s perspective, the move would be historic, comparable to the decision to move to Morningside Heights over 100 years ago. The new campus would address a severe space deficit that Columbia says it suffers compared to other top schools, and add enough floor area to grow for another 30 years.
But in this case, Columbia’s history with the community, the nature of the opposition it faced and the awkwardness with which it stated its case conspired to make the expansion a particularly difficult sell.
It was clear from public hearings that the memory of the university’s attempt to build a gym in Morningside Park lives on strongly, even though it happened almost 40 years ago. “Don’t trust Columbia University,” Councilman Charles Barron, an East New York Democrat, proclaimed at last week’s City Council meeting. “History has shown that they cannot be trusted.”
On top of that, Harlem’s well-organized tenants groups, already upset about gentrification that it could not control, saw in Columbia an enemy it could recognize and fight. They launched a no-holds-barred assault on the plan, booing Mr. Bollinger, and even former Mayor David Dinkins, a Columbia professor, when they spoke in support of the expansion at a public hearing in August.
The opposition may have turned off political leaders, but it energized its base with a clear message: Columbia was an outsider eating up Harlem. The university tried to defuse this argument by pledging that it would not seek to use eminent domain to displace residents, only businesses. Yet the distinction was publicized only late in the game, and it did not do anything to temper the objections of two commercial property owners who did not want to sell to Columbia. One, Nick Sprayregen, hired a lawyer and publicist to fight it. The other, Anne Whitman, supported an opposition group, the Coalition to Preserve Community, by contributing money to pay for photocopies and the like, according to Tom DeMott, a founder of the CPC.
Columbia, on the other hand, seemed to be spreading several messages. One was that it was misunderstood. Mr. Bollinger, for instance, told The Observer in January that the relationship with Harlem was “quite positive, much better than it was, and not as appreciated as it ought to be.” He went so far as to say about surrounding residents, “Their lives will be very significantly improved by Columbia’s presence. If I didn’t believe that, I would not have reached the decision to go there.”
Meanwhile, other officials and university brochures tried to play up how much the school already was doing for Harlem by advertising its community health services, a legal aid clinic and the fact that 30 percent of its workforce lived in Upper Manhattan. They trumpeted a “Columbia-assisted” public high school that would be located on the new campus—although, the university’s senior executive vice president, Robert Kasdin, said last week that Columbia is not paying for the construction of the school, just the property on which it will stand.
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.
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