Arun Venugopal is a reporter and the creator of Micropolis, WNYC’s multi-platform series examining race, sexuality, religion, street life and other issues that define New York City. He has been with the station since 2005, and has covered a wide range of stories, including the death of Sean Bell, the controversy over the Park 51 mosque and community center and Occupy Wall Street .
Columbia Expansion Faces Neighborhood Controversy
Friday, June 01, 2007
New York, NY –
Columbia University's proposal to transform a large section of upper Manhattan is about to become official. On Monday, the land-use review process, known as ULURP, is set to begin. But the timing of the announcement has opponents of the plan crying foul. WNYC's Arun Venugopal has more.
REPORTER: The residents of West Harlem are getting antsy. After years of resisting Columbia University's 17-acre expansion plan, they're worried they'll actually be caught off guard. On Wednesday, the head of Community Board 9, George Reyes-Montblanc, sent out a letter to area residents, in hopes of mobilizing them. He says the City Planning Commission plans to certify the university's expansion proposal on June 4. That would force the 60-day public review to take place during the summer, when all Community Boards are on leave and when many experts - and residents - are out of town.
REYES-MONTBLANC: We have expressed this concern to City planning from Day One. Community boards are always very wary of any ULURP that takes place during the summer months. It looks bad. It is subject to all sorts of suspicions. And the general feeling is that this is a way to bypass the community. Both the boards and the residents. So it's really in bad form to do something like that during the summer months.
REPORTER: Columbia's plan would dramatically alter West Harlem, from an industrial area with garages and low-income housing to one defined by skyscrapers and high-tech research facilities. And that alarms people who live there now.
This week alone, community organizers are holding a flurry of meetings and press conferences.
On Wednesday, a group of Hispanic tenants from the area met at the Mirabal Sisters Cultural and Community Center. Some are worried that Columbia will resort to eminent domain in order to assert control over the whole area. Others say the university's impending plan has already encouraged landlords to harass residents. They say that low-income residents are being pushed out, and replaced by wealthier, mostly white, residents.
MAN: This is going to become like a yuppie island, Manhattan. It's got racial and its got class overtones. It's basically going to turn into a playground for people who can afford it. We're going to pull together community groups in Harlem - East and West Harlem.
REPORTER: One community activist who's been fighting the expansion is Tom Demott. Like other activists, he is alternately confident and pessimistic about the community's efforts. On one hand, many tenants have remained united against the expansion plan. At the same time, he's worried about the lack of support from elected officials. None of them, he said, pressured City Planning to delay the process - he sees the hand of Columbia's lobbyists.
DEMOTT: This is the problem. And I think this is also where the massive escalation in lobbying has to do with this overall failure of the elected officials to be the advocates that we need them to be. They're smart people, they understand the issues. There's a huge power, there's a huge elephant here. And unfortunately that power seems to be dominating.
REPORTER: A spokeswoman for Columbia says the university had nothing to do with the timing of its certification. But the City Planning Commission defends the timing, saying it's accommodated Community Board 9 at previous stages of the process. And that it was understood all along that public review would begin as soon as the university's application was complete. A spokeswoman for the planning commission says 2 plans will be evaluated - Columbia's and an alternative, submitted by Community Board 9.
For WNYC, I'm Arun Venugopal.
Community Board 9 is organizing an event later this morning. on the steps of City Hall, to address the situation. A two-day Convention of Tenants, organized by the Mirabal Sisters Community Center, begins this evening at Our Lady of Lourdes Church in Harlem.