Looking back on my four years at Columbia, what strikes me is how little attention the Manhattanville expansion earned from my peers (myself included). For the longest time, I understood that something was happening at Manhattanville, but never learned nor really cared to learn the details of the expansion.
This attitude may be the product of a concerted effort by the University to bill the expansion as a benefit to the surrounding community, and by many visible metrics, this isn't a particularly difficult claim for the University to make. In 2009, the University drew up a Community Benefits Agreement; Columbia's contributions, outlined in the Agreement, include a $76 million Benefits Fund, a $20 million Affordable Housing Fund, and $20 million "in access to CU facilities, services and amenities[.]" The funds are administered by the West Harlem Development Corporation, an organization led by long-time Harlem residents established to oversee implementation of the Agreement. The University has also "agreed to replace some of the affordable housing units that were taken to construct the new campus." So far, so good, right?
Well, not quite.
By Columbia's own admission, rents are rising in the periphery of the new, yet-to-be-completed Manhattanville campus. In a statement to CityLimits.org on behalf of the University, Kenneth Jackson, a professor of history at Columbia University, said, "This huge infusion of money will, I hate to use the word 'better,' but make it more expensive, more lively—it was not lively before—and it will probably benefit the city." District 7 councilman Mark Levine was less optimistic: "Even before the first building has opened its doors," he said, "there's a real epidemic of displacement through evictions of long-term residential tenants." Residents beware; College Town™ is coming.
That's not to say that I've got something against Starbucks as an institution—as far as giant corporations go, it's about as inoffensive as they come. What's truly concerning is that Starbucks is arriving at the expense of a local restaurant. Abdusalam Abajebel, owner of the adjacent Oasis Jimma Juice Bar, had been looking to expand into the vacant spot ultimately occupied by the wealthier competitor. Now, he's "concerned that his rent will be hiked when it comes time to renew it in a year and a half, possibly driving him out of business altogether." It's not impossible to imagine this trend sweeping through West Harlem as the Manhattanville expansion reaches completion—in fact, it already appears to be happening.
According to a Governing.com analysis of census and demographic data, between 2000 and 2013, three of four surrounding census tracts gentrified. In the same period, the number of residents with Bachelor's degrees roughly doubled. Before 2000, the number hovered consistently around 5.6%. In and of itself, an increase in adults with degrees is not a bad thing, unless you take the more pessimistic view: that the increase is less an indicator of greater access to education, and more of a different crop of residents. In fact, a 2007 draft environmental impact statement found that "nearly 3,584 residents will be forced out of their homes between 2015 and 2030, and around 85 businesses will be displaced" as a result of the expansion. This is bolstered by the wealth of reports describing landlords imposing higher rents or creating inhospitable conditions to encourage renters to move out.
Insofar as the University is concerned, it has complied with the CBA to the letter. However, in the crossfire between University PR, records of money disbursed by the WHDC, and reports of rising rents, it's hard to discern whether or not the CBA was drawn up in such a way that puts a real burden on Columbia to proactively benefit the community. Funneling money into a community means very little if the renters in the area can't afford to live there.
Here, we run into the logistical nightmare of having to judge whether Columbia would do a better job than the WHDC. After all, between 2009 and 2011, the WHDC issued only one grant for over $300,000, and only three grants were awarded in total. In 2012, the New York State Attorney General's office found that "the [WHDC's] board of directors was in disarray and failed to develop proper policies and procedures related to distributing the money." In 2014, only 5% of funds (approximately $345,000 of $6.8 million) from the Benefits Fund went towards housing, and four of the nine grants went to organizations from outside of the neighborhood. However, I would feel queasy suggesting that Columbia's heaving bureaucracy should administer the funds; this brings us back to square one.
With 40 days left until graduation, and the machine of Columbia expansion irreversibly set in motion, I, personally, feel somewhat hopeless about the situation. At this point, it is almost certainly too late to do anything: In 2010, the U.S. Supreme Court denied an appeal of the New York State Court of Appeals decision in favor of Columbia's expansion. By October of 2013, construction on the Jerome L. Green Science center was concluded.
Still, I hope that future generations of Columbians will have the opportunity to grapple with this issue, if only because their future is distressing to imagine: What will the expansion of James McShane's jurisdiction into West Harlem mean for the Grant houses? What will the inevitable "upscale" storefronts following Starbucks into the neighborhood mean for local businesses? And, most importantly, what is a Community Benefits Agreement without the community it was meant to serve?
Mikhail Klimentov is a Columbia College senior studying political science, computer science, and visual arts. He is a former editorial page editor for Spectator and poet laureate emeritus of the Columbia University Marching Band. He tweets @LeaderGrev. Mike Olumn runs every two weeks. Fun!
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