For Columbia University, undergoing the largest expansion in its 253-year history is big news. But big news may spell trouble for Amrik Singh.
The New York City Council in December approved Columbia’s $7 billion proposal to rezone 17 acres of Manhattan’s West Harlem neighborhood and make them part of the university’s Manhattanville campus. Columbia currently owns about 65 percent of the area and is looking to acquire the rest, which spans roughly from West 125th to 133rd streets between Broadway and Riverside Drive. Should it acquire the land, the college plans to raze all but a few buildings to construct new dormitories and science facilities, among other things.
Singh, the manager of Quick Center Inc., a gas station located in the 17 acres targeted by Columbia, owns a small part of the remaining 35 percent. He refuses to leave the ground he owns, having saved for the land “dollar by dollar” 25 years ago.
“They want to take it over, to kill us,” Singh proclaimed. “But we’ll fight back.”
For Manhattanville businesses whose land is within the 17-acre plot but has not yet been purchased by Columbia, a sense of tension permeates the four city quadrangles that make up this mostly abandoned industrial sector, where the landscape is marked by street after street of closed factory buildings. Residents are concerned that expansion will leave them without a source of income, but project backers predict it will revitalize the area, bringing in hundreds of well-paying jobs and permanently attracting businesses.
Of the 20 people interviewed from a dozen businesses within and nearby the area, only one did not express reservations about the proposed changes. Two-thirds of those interviewed expressed concern that the college will force them to go out of business, but many were skeptical that they will be able to do anything to forestall the seemingly inevitable change.
The expansion has the support of many private business owners, but “as with any project, there has been a diversity of opinion,” Columbia Assistant Vice President of Public Affairs La-Verna Fountain wrote in an e-mail to the News on Friday.
But as momentum builds for a project whose impact on the surrounding environment may be similar to that of the possible addition of two new residential colleges here in New Haven, the diversity of opinion — the opposition, in other words — is waning.
The Coalition to Preserve Community, a small but vocal group of community organizers opposed to the expansion, has struggled to attract large numbers of community members to join its ranks. And although the wealthiest opponent — Nick Sprayregen, CEO of Tuck-it-Away Storage, which has four properties in the area — estimates he will spend more than $2 million in legal fees fighting Columbia over what is “right and wrong” regarding the university’s potential use of eminent domain, the New York Times reported two weeks ago, he said he is “probably on the losing side.”
“I’m a mere mortal and they’re an institution,” Sprayregen told the Times.
If they have to resort to eminent domain to acquire the land, Columbia may have to quell residents’ anger at the seizure of their property.
“We worked so hard for it,” Singh says, slowly raising his voice. “How can we ever sell it?”
Columbia officials have long heralded the 6,000 university jobs and 1,200 construction jobs per year the building of the facilities would likely bring to Manhattanville, where employment has declined steadily over the last 20 years. The area is currently home to roughly 1,000 jobs, many of them in manufacturing.
But in a handout found at front desks in several local businesses, the CPC claims that many of the new jobs “will overwhelmingly be for outsiders” and the jobs for nearby residents would be “primarily low wage jobs in the service sector.” The CPC provides no evidence for these assertions on the sheet, but a statement on its Web site alleges that “Columbia has a poor history of fulfilling promises.”
Repeated messages left last week with over 10 Columbia officials seeking comment for this article were not returned. Fountain contacted the News last Friday and asked for all interview questions to be e-mailed to her.
Roberto, a mechanic at an auto shop on 130th Street as he took a tire off a red sedan, whispered that he may not be able to find another job because he never graduated from high school.
“Big companies like Columbia won’t help the little guys like us,” he said in Spanish.
Two blocks north, on one of Sprayregen’s orange warehouses hangs a sign that spans the height of the building. In red and black, the words can be seen from the trains that loom overhead: “STOP COLUMBIA! We won’t be pushed out!,” said in English and Spanish.
But not every business has been lamenting the expansion.
Especially at stores outside the 17-acre plot, some business owners and employees anticipate there may be some economic gain for them if more students and Columbia workers move into the area.
On the corner of West 125th Street and Broadway sits a small, 50-year-old liquor shop with a huge selection of wines stacked on the walls. The owner of the West 125th Street Liquors, Inc., Omar Ramirez, insists he is looking forward to the benefits Columbia’s new buildings might bring. He sees the expansion bringing in many more customers to his store, because “there’s a big wine culture” among students.
He hopes this “big boom” will happen sooner rather than later. “It’s gonna be a big change here, and we definitely need it,” he said.
David Dinkins, the mayor of New York from 1990 to 1993 and currently a Columbia professor of public affairs, wrote in a May 27, 2007 New York Times column that the proposal promises “responsible growth” in the area.
“[It] is the perfect example of a change that will generate growth and benefit all,” he wrote in the piece, emphasizing the plan’s ability to revive commercial life in the area.
When asked about the jobs Columbia might provide, a female Shell gas station worker, who said she barely makes ends meet every week, admitted her interest: “I might want to get a job there — if they give it to me.”
She asked to remain anonymous because she said she wants to be able to apply for a Columbia job and fears that her poor English skills may prevent her from landing one.
Other Ivy League institutions looking to grow have faced similar skepticism from community members — and have used financial brawn to assuage concerns.
At Harvard, administrators unveiled a 50-year proposal to build facilities and move professional schools into the Allston area of Boston, across the Charles River from the central campus, early in 2007 after eyeing the land for 10 years. Harvard says the plan will bring economic development to the area and increase the size of Harvard’s campus, currently 380 acres. The university projects that the expansion will bring in about 4,500 permanent laboratory jobs and about 750 construction jobs per year to the area.
Although the plan has come under fire from community leaders at local meetings for years, Harvard has purchased large chunks of the land, about 350 acres to this point.
In 2004, then-Harvard President Lawrence Summers pledged $1.2 million to encourage business development in the Allston area, according to a 2004 press release.
And in October, Yale will voluntarily contribute $600,000 to the cities of Orange and West Haven, the first of several gifts offered in lieu of property taxes as compensation for building the University’s new West Campus, which will provide new science facilities.
But both numbers are pocket change compared to the $150 million Columbia had to promise to cough up for Manhattanville residents and the community last month. Even so, community members are unsure the benefits of expansion will trickle down to them.
The Shell worker, a resident of 155th Street, said Columbia representatives visited the station “three or so” times last year. She did not know what the officials did because the workers there were “not told anything” about Columbia’s procedures, she said.
The land the Shell station stands on has already been purchased by the school.
Sitting behind the counter of the gas station on the corner of 129th Street and Broadway, the female worker sells a soda to a man waiting for his taxi to be filled with gas. When a reporter approached her one week ago, she was hesitant to speak.
“We’re all scared,” she said in Spanish, “because we don’t know when they’re going to take this place.”