Advisory committee releases report on Columbia's proposed expansion
by JAMAL WATSON
Amsterdam News Staff
Originally posted 8/12/2004
A group of community leaders has called on Columbia University to help generate affordable and low-income housing in the neighborhoods where the university has proposed to expand.
In a report released to Columbia's president, Lee C. Bollinger, members of the Columbia Advisory Committee (CAC), a 39-person task force of community, civic and business leaders, urged Bollinger to invest in creating affordable and low-income housing, as it plans to expand its campus into Manhattanville and West Harlem.
"The CAC recognizes that housing is not a core University activity. Nor is the University responsible for the growing crisis of affordable and low-income housing in New York City," reads the report, compiled by the committee who was appointed by Bollinger.
"However, given Columbia's substantial real-estate holdings, planned development and range of current construction projects, the University will have a profound economic and social impact within the Manhattanville footprint, and in surrounding communities."
Dorothy Desir, a resident of Central Harlem and a member of the advisory committee said that the university should pay close attention to issues of displacement and the impact of gentrification on neighborhood residents and small businesses in the Harlem and Manhattanville communities.
The expansion, which college officials say would likely pump some $3 billion dollars into the area and would employ thousands of workers to design and build projects, "doesn't have to have a corrosive effect," said Desir, who has watched as neighbors have feuded with college officials for years. "Columbia can expand and maintain the cultural legacy of Harlem," she added.
In addition to housing, the advisory committee has urged the university to maintain a commitment to community employment and developing open green spaces, even as it seeks to locate some of its existing departments to newer buildings off campus because of a shortage of campus space.
University officials have been working to acquire properties in the Manhattanville section, between 12th Avenue and Broadway, and have already closed deals on others. From the beginning, Columbia has proceeded cautiously, in part because of its contentious relationship with community residents that go back some forty years ago.
This time around, Bollinger has personally courted political leaders, community boards and community activists, vowing to make Columbia's plans transparent. He's said that he wanted community input, a departure, community leaders say, from the university's isolationist stance in the past.
"He [Bollinger] has already established himself as a forward thinking person who has the guts to take a stand," said Desir, who said that Bollinger is sensitive to the issues that face communities of color, given his strong support for Affirmative Action during his tenure as president at the University of Michigan. "We see this an opportunity for real change."
If the project, which would likely house laboratories and studio and performance space for the arts, is approved, construction could begin on the first phase of the plan as early as next year. One million square feet of new and renovated space could be completed within 10 years of the approval. Officials are quick to point out that the overall development of the area would be done in phases over a 30-year period.
The Committee has called on the university to be environmentally sensitive during the construction phase and to design buildings that would not block views of the Hudson River on 125th Street.
But perhaps the most controversial recommendation that they've requested is a Memorandum of Understanding or Community Benefits Agreement, one that Columbia would enter into with the surrounding neighborhoods. The agreement, if adopted by Columbia, would prevent the university from reneging on any promises that it makes to the community.
"I think they really made a wonderful effort in putting this together," said Warren Whitlock, director of construction coordination at Columbia. "We are looking at the report. They make a lot of good points. Our challenge is to identify the things we already do and can improve on and the things that we haven't quite wrapped our arms around like affordable housing."
On the housing front, Whitlock said that college officials are "having conversations with experts in the field who are enlightening us," but almost everyone concedes that Columbia alone can not put a dent in a housing market that has exploded in recent years. Harlem, once considered undesirable by some, has become a final destination spot for many New Yorkers.
While the advisory committee's official role is now over, some members, like Joseph Wilson, a professor at Brooklyn's College's Graduate Center for Worker Education, says that continued oversight is needed in the months and years ahead.
Wilson, an alumnus of Columbia who co-edited the report, has encouraged Bollinger to keep the task force in place and has requested that the administration respond to the Committee's recommendations by mid-September.
"We got past all the egos and personal agendas and came out as a united front," said Wilson. The report, he said, is a "rallying flag to make sure that Columbia does the right thing."
Whitlock said that he was unsure if the college would retain the advisory committee on a formal basis, but added that the university will continue to discuss expansion plans with the community.
"We know we have to continue a dialogue with the community and we're going to do that," he said.
Jamal Watson can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org