University President Lee Bollinger provided new details about Columbia's plans for its Manhattanville expansion and argued that the project would do more good than harm to the surrounding area in a discussion with students on Friday.
In a previously unannounced development, Bollinger said, "We've been talking about a Mind, Brain, and Behavior Center in Manhattanville," noting that the University has many Nobel Prize-winning faculty who may be involved in the project. University officials confirmed that Columbia is moving forward on plans to develop such a center in Manhattanville, but provided no further details.
Bollinger devoted many of his remarks at the event, sponsored by the United Students of Color Council, to arguing that the expansion would be beneficial to the West Harlem neighborhood. "It's an area that has been declining in its economic activity over the decades," he said of Manhattanville, "It's a beautiful area and it could be made vibrant."
Negotiations towards a possible Community Benefits Agreement for Manhattanville, originally scheduled to start in January, have not yet begun. "It's absolutely right to say we need to figure out in more detail than we have now what we can do for the community," Bollinger said, explaining that negotiations have been delayed because the University is waiting for Community Board 9 to complete formation of a Local Development Corporation that will negotiate the agreement.
In addition to specific benefits agreed to in a CBA, Bollinger said that Columbia's presence would bring more intangible benefits since the University could act as an advocate and bring better city services to the area. "Columbia has a lot of power," he said.
"There are people living in this area who live under very distressed circumstances," he said, "We can't solve all the problems, but we can help. We could do after school programs, we could have an asthma clinic, a stroke clinic ... a lot depends on what the Community Board asks us to do."
But USCC President Ambalika Pinto, CC '07, said after the event that she was dubious of Bollinger's claims. "He talked about blending with the community ... we aren't blending with the community right now," Pinto said, "You walk one block east from campus ... and you're in a different world."
"Expansion's going to happen regardless, which is a reality which I'm not happy about accepting right now, but it's reality, that's fine," she said, "But to pretend you're going to do something for the community when you're not ... that's a lie, and that's why I'm frustrated right now."
In response to concerns that dangerous biotech research would be conducted at the new campus, Bollinger said that nothing would be done that threatened public health. "I promise you there will be no anthrax research done," he added.
He acknowledged concerns that the expansion would contribute to the gentrification of Harlem and drive rents higher than area residents could afford. "It's a very hard problem, [but] that's already happening to Harlem. This is not just Columbia," he said. He also said he was "prepared to promise we will never buy the public housing" in the area surrounding the proposed campus.
On the topic of eminent domain, the power by which the state can force owners to sell their property for public use, Bollinger said that "my hope is that we will not implement that power."
He said he would not take it off the table because "there are people who simply use development projects to advance their own economic gain," who might "hold up" the University "if I said I would never use eminent domain under any circumstances."
He repeatedly referred to Columbia as a "public institution"-in order for eminent domain to be used, the state would have to determine that the expansion constitutes a "public use."
"I knew from the beginning we could not recreate Morningside Heights in Manhattanville," Bollinger said, acknowledging that the Morningside campus is uninviting to people unaffiliated with the University. "This is brick, it's stone, it's glass," he said, "If you're a member of the community ... there's nothing for you to do here, and the structure of the buildings is to keep you out."
He cited open cross streets, first-floor retail uses, open space, and access to the waterfront as elements that would give the Manhattanville campus a different feel. At the same time, he said, "I also insist that there be a sense of campus there."
Despite considerable opposition, Bollinger insisted that "I'm positive this will succeed ... because people in Harlem want this to happen."
And if he's wrong? "Should it fail, we'll just have to go elsewhere," he said.