Transit officials have indicated to Columbia that the Manhattanville Bus Depot, located on the northern end of the University's proposed expansion zone, is not for sale.
According to two documents acquired from New York City Transit by Spectator under the Freedom of Information Law, University administrators and the Metropolitan Transportation Authority have held various meetings discussing the possible sale of two MTA-owned properties-the bus depot and a small support facility-to Columbia. This could eliminate a full block from the proposed development area.
As Columbia prepares to enter a major review process about Manhattanville-where it hopes to acquire a 17-acre area and build a contiguous campus-the documents provide a unique window into the quiet processes of acquiring the land necessary to develop and drew strong reactions from other key players in the expansion.
University officials would not confirm or deny the contents of the documents.
A Nov. 1, 2004 letter from the NYCT-the subsidiary of the MTA responsible for buses and subways-to Columbia suggests that the University now plans to accommodate the bus depot as it stands into its development of Manhattanville.
"The need to maintain our service standards is paramount. Thus, we were happy to see the acknowledgement in your scoping document that the Depot will remain at its current location and that it will be incorporated, in its current capacity, into the University's future plans," says the letter, which was signed by NYCT President Lawrence Reuter and addressed to Columbia Senior Executive Vice President Robert Kasdin.
An internal memo written by Theodore Orosz, director of Manhattan/Bronx Bus Planning, described a Sept. 10, 2003 meeting between Columbia and MTA officials and outlined the authority's stance on the bus depot.
"[Columbia] inquired if Transit would be interested in parting with, relocating, or allowing joint development over Manhattanville Depot. While nobody from Transit gave an absolute no, our response was most negative," the internal memo says. Charles Seaton, a spokesman for NYC Transit, said the MTA and NYC Transit have not altered their stance.
University officials downplayed the significance of the two documents, saying that discussions are ongoing.
"Columbia remains engaged in discussions with the Metropolitan Transportation Authority New York City Transit and it is the University's policy not to discuss ongoing negotiations. We will continue to discuss available options with all property owners in the proposed Manhattanville development area," University spokeswoman Liz Golden said. "The bus depot site falls within a later phase of the proposed development, anticipated to take place over the next 25-30 years."
Though the MTA is not willing to sell the Manhattanville Bus Depot, the letter to Kasdin suggests that NYC Transit would be willing to vacate a small support facility located on West 131st St. if it were provided with a replacement facility meeting its operational needs. The MTA requested that the replacement facility "must be located within close proximity to a major highway or commercial vehicle thoroughfare," provide facilities for 50 employees, parking for large vehicles and 50,000 square feet of storage space.
Columbia officials declined to comment on whether they planned to offer such a replacement facility.
One business owner who has refused to sell to Columbia said he doubted Columbia would be as willing to accomodate him and other private business owners as the MTA.
"It shows once again how the big boys beat up on the little kids," said Nick Sprayregen, owner of Tuck-It-Away Storage, which owns several buildings in the proposed expansion area.
He added that while large institutions can wring concessions from Columbia, "it's different ground rules for everyone else."
"They are given the choice [to stay], but not us," he said.
Anne Whitman, owner of Hudson Moving and Storage, responded a bit more optimistically to signs of Columbia's flexibility.
"It's a very positive sign for the businesses and residents that are there. I would hope that the next step would be to have some real dialogue with the community that remains," she said. "Maybe there's a little light at the end of the tunnel."
Jordi Reyes-Montblanc, the chairman of Community Board 9, had a similar response to the contents of the documents.
"I suspect that the bus depot will continue to be there," Reyes-Montblanc said. "That's not going to make anyone happy."
Susan Russell, chief of staff to Councilman Robert Jackson (D-West Harlem), said that allowing the bus depot to stay put would be a sensible compromise on Columbia's part.
"I think Columbia has to be practical, and certainly if they want to develop land owned by the MTA, they have to be flexible," she said, "They can't force the MTA to let them develop the land. It would be foolish if they refused to compromise."
Russell said that the practical issues posed by the bus depot were too complex to take a simple position on whether the facility should remain at its current location.
"We have to get a better look at what Columbia's plans are and how it will be incorporated," she said, "We've been working very closely with the mayor's office and the Community Board in terms of how to handle all these issues, and this [the fate of the bus depot] will be part of it."