Upon arriving at Columbia’s campus in Morningside Heights, you may begin hearing about another one being built in Manhattanville.
This area in West Harlem is the site of the University’s long-term expansion plan, extending from 129th to 133rd streets between Broadway and Twelfth Avenue, and including a few properties east from 131st to 134th streets. While essentially the project is a done deal, it persists as the source of much passion—and sometimes vitriol—on campus and throughout the surrounding neighborhoods.
Columbia plans to build a new, 17-acre campus for primarily graduate student and research facilities, and the first stage of construction is slated for completion by 2015. The University maintains this will keep Columbia competitive, enrich the community by bringing in the resources of a top research institution, and revive a blighted neighborhood.
But opponents, such as local activist group Coalition to Preserve Community and the Columbia-based Student Coalition on Expansion and Gentrification argue against many aspects of the project, most notably the inevitable displacement of residents and businesses in and around Manhattanville.
In December 2008, New York state authorized the use of eminent domain in the project area, meaning that within the 17-acre expansion zone, the state can seize property from private landowners— who would be compensated market-rate value—and transfer ownership of those properties to the University. All but two business owners have made deals with Columbia to sell or swap their property. Those who haven’t, and would thus be subject to eminent domain, are Tuck-It-Away Storage owner Nick Sprayregen and gas station owners Gurnam and Parminder Singh. Sprayregen filed a lawsuit challenging eminent domain, but is still waiting on a ruling.
University officials maintain that eminent domain will be used on only businesses, not residents. But critics of the expansion fear that people who live around the project site will be forced out indirectly by gentrification and rising costs of living.
The project has gone through a lengthy review process since it was first proposed in 2004. The local Community Board 9, the City Planning Commission, and the City Council have all voted on the plan. CB9 proposed an alternative that, it said, would allow Columbia to expand while addressing community concerns. But at the end of 2007, the city approved both Columbia’s version of the plan and CB9’s, combining each in a way that ultimately satisfied Columbia’s goals and not those of the board.
Opposition has continued ever since, though the University has obtained all necessary approvals for the project and can legally proceed with construction.
In May, Columbia released a $150 million community benefits agreement, which designates funding for affordable housing, a public school, and other local programs while setting aside an “unencumbered” $76 million for the West Harlem Local Development Corporation to spend as it chooses.
Community Board 9 voted against the agreement, citing that it did not offer enough. But the LDC had the authority to approve it, and did so days later.