Manhattanville controversy

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Bollinger and Bloomberg plot while looking over Manhattanville from the Northwest Science Building

In the summer of 2003, President Bollinger announced the University's intentions to build a satellite campus extension in the area bounded by 125th and 133rd Streets between Broadway and 12th Avenue, an area of approximately 18 acres. The region in question, known as Manhattanville, is a largely depopulated industrial area northwest of campus.

Controversy surrounds the impact of Columbia's plans on the neighborhood and the possibility of the state using eminent domain to condemn properties in the area. As of 2008, plans to use the state's power of eminent domain to force the sale of the remaining holdouts on the planned campus are underway. Some of the objection surrounds the alleged but disproven plans for the construction of a Bio Safety Level 3 laboratory on the campus.

Community Board 9 is the local neighborhood group that works on this issue, negotiating with Columbia through the West Harlem Local Development Corporation. Having initially presented their ideal 197-a plan, they are now looking to negotiate an agreement with Columbia for affordable housing, community benefits, and other forms of local funding. Columbia has already agreed to create a public high school on or near the campus.

The Student Coalition on Expansion and Gentrification is the main student group against Columbia's expansion as proposed, calling for changes to the plan to make Columbia accountable to the community. The Coalition to Preserve Community is a neighborhood group dedicated to protecting the rights of tenants in the wake of Manhattan's largest development. Anti-Columbia activist Nellie McKay has also spoken out on the issue.

Two visions for Manhattanville

The Columbia Plan

See also: Manhattanville campus

Columbia has retained world renowned architect Renzo Piano to lay the master plan for the expansion, a plan which Bollinger has insisted must be implemented either in whole or not at all. Current plans call for the first phase of construction to include new sites for the Business School, the School of the Arts, the newly created Jerome L. Greene Science Center, and the Columbia Science, Math and Engineering Secondary School.

The 197-a Plan

197-a refers to section 197-a of the New York City Charter. This section authorizes community boards and borough boards, as well as the Mayor, the City Planning Commission, the Department of City Planning, and any Borough President, to sponsor plans for the development, growth, and improvement of the city, its boroughs and communities.

Community Board 9 has drafted 197-a plan for Morningside Heights, Manhattanville, and Hamilton Heights. It was developed in cooperation with the Pratt Institute Center for Community Development and the Department of City Planning.

Once ratified, the plan itself has no legal force. Yet, since the plan is an embodiment of the "people's will" any development or activity that ran counter to the plan would be a major contretemps for Columbia. The 197-a plan does not prevent the development of the Manhattanville campus, but does contain provisions that would require significant modifications to Columbia's current proposal.

Eminent domain

Typical of these kinds of land use disputes, there are a number of 'hold-outs' in the Manhattanville area. Several businesses were approached with buyout offers by Columbia, and many accepted over time.

A number of property owners were initially opposed to any sort of deal. Anne Whitman of Hudson Moving and Storage famously went on the record in August 2006, stating “No way Columbia is going to steal this property right out from underneath me. Remember that man who stood in front of the tank at Tiananmen Square? That’s me.” She accused Columbia of deliberately causing family strife when it reached a deal in 2007 with her brothers, who owned a nearby property. In June 2008 she agreed to swap her property for one on Audobon Avenue near Columbia's Medical Center in Washington Heights, on which Columbia agreed to build her a new building, while providing temporary accommodation on yet another site.[1]

Ultimately only 2 refused to sell:

  • Nick Sprayregan, a wealthy property owner, is the most vocal of the holdouts
  • Gurnam Singh, who owns two gas stations in the area

These holdouts have caused Columbia to pursue plans to have the property taken by eminent domain, a power possessed by New York State. Under the plan, recalcitrant owners would be forced to sell to the state, which would then sell the land to Columbia. Eminent domain is philosophically justified by the premise that a greater use, or public good, can justify property displacement, so long as there is fair compensation, as allowed in the Fifth Amendment of the United States Constitution. There is ongoing legal controversy about whether a private developer can constitute a public good - relevant in Columbia's case. The Supreme Court in Kelo v. New London upheld the idea that uses of eminent domain for private purposes are legitimate.

On December 18, 2008, the Empire State Development Corporation (ESDC) voted unanimously to use eminent domain to seize Manhattanville property for Columbia's benefit.[2] In May of that year, the corporation had approved Columbia's plan for the area, which it characterised as "blighted". In 2007, the plan was approved by the New York City Land Use Committee.

The 197-a plan contained clauses proscribing the use of eminent domain in the area.

The eminent domain issue eventually became the subject of a lawsuit between the holdout landowners and Columbia which reached the New York State Court of Appeals, the state's highest court, which ruled in the ESDC's (and, thus, Columbia's) favor. Technically, the issue is still appealable to the U.S. Supreme Court, but this seems unlikely.

Support of the plan

  • Expansion creates new job opportunities[3] in the neighborhood
  • Expansion leads to more commerce in the area and in New York City[4]
  • Expansion would change the character of the neighborhood for the better
  • Plan includes community amenities including the creation of parkland and the creation of Columbia secondary school
  • Expansion improves the university's research capabilities, which benefit society in many ways

Objections to the plan

  • The expansion would considerably change the character of the neighborhood
  • The expansion would require residents in the neighborhood to relocate[5]
  • The expansion would eliminate several business operating in the area
  • The University has indicated it would use eminent domain if necessary
  • The proximity of biotech facilities to densely populated neighborhoods
  • The expansion is expected to cause secondary displacement throughout West Harlem and Upper Manhattan due to increased rents


External links