Columbia’s plans for a new biotech campus in West Harlem moved ahead a couple of weeks ago, after the New York City Council approved the rezoning of the Manhattanville neighborhood, allowing the university to proceed with development, which will take at least a couple of decades to complete. While most of the property owners have already sold out to Columbia, three remain, including Nicholas Sprayregen and Anne Whitman.
On December 19, the City Council voted 35-5, with six abstentions and five absences, to approve the rezoning. The vote came a month earlier than expected. According to The New York Times, those dissentions and abstentions were in protest against the university’s threat of eminent domain and the rushed approval process. At least one councilmember, Vincent Ignizio, realized the gravity of the vote, telling the council: “Be very concerned about what you do, because the bullet you put in the gun of government today when pointed at somebody else may one day be pointed at you.”
Besides citing the need to compete with fellow Ivy League universities, like Harvard, which is building a 300-acre science campus, and Yale, with a plan for 136-acre pharmaceutical complex, Columbia reasons that the resulting economic benefit to the neighborhood in the forms of jobs should override any concern about exercising eminent domain to kick out the remaining businesses. But Brad Lander, director of the Pratt Center for Community Development, which helped Community Board 9 develop its own plan, recognizes who will actually benefit from Columbia’s development: “It will be good for people than it is today, but it’s a different set of people. Will it be better or worse for the people who live nearby? It will be much less theirs, and there will be fewer decent job opportunities for them.”
Reaction to the City Council’s vote has been mixed. The New York Times, itself a beneficiary of eminent domain, printed a very positive piece for Columbia (some might even call it a puff piece) with the headline, “For a Top-Tier University, There’s New Room to Get Even Better,” which was balanced by a somewhat unexpectedly sympathetic piece on the remaining business owners, or the “Holdouts,” as The Times calls them.
A New York Post headline writer must have felt a rush of exuberance over the vote—not surprising considering the Post had launched a preemptive strike with an editorial plea for the approval of the university’s plan the day of the vote (as if there were some realistic chance it would be voted down). A week later, the Post was kind enough to publish Sprayregen’s op-ed on Columbia’s land grab and a letter written by my colleague here at the Castle Coalition, Christina Walsh, taking the paper to task for calling those who oppose the plan “silly”.
The New York Sun published an op-ed by a local urban planner with a headline that minces no words: “Columbia pulls a Kelo.” El Diario called for land use reform, questioning who will benefit from Columbia’s plans. The Columbia Spectator covered the aftermath, as members of Community Board 9 and locals opposed to Columbia’s plan confronted City Council members.
Finally, the Daily News published a fascinating article on New York City Council members’ views of eminent domain and what the Columbia vote means for other threatened properties in the city. Those opposed to Columbia’s use of eminent domain were clear about just what is at stake here.
Councilwoman Letitia James looked at the big picture: “From Queens to Brooklyn, from the proposed Atlantic Yards to Coney Island and West Harlem, today is just yet another example of the threat – and I would argue the abuse – of eminent domain.”
And Councilman Tony Avella got to the heart of the matter: “If we approve this knowing full well that eminent domain is going to be used down the road, nobody’s private property within this city is safe.”
That’s exactly right.