In a New York minute, aid vs. displacement

Zuhar Khan, 50, a resident of 600 West 133rd Street — a building in the 17 acres of Manhattanville soon to be acquired by Columbia University — is not optimistic.

A father of four, employee of the New York City Board of Education and Manhattanville resident for about eight years, he fears leaving the familiar, “no problem” area. And he worries about his ability to find an affordable apartment elsewhere.

“I’m used to the area. I like the area,” he said in a phone interview. “But if Columbia takes it, I have no chance. On my own, I’ll have no chance.”

Manhattanville, part of New York City’s West Harlem area, contains a few tenement-like five-story residential buildings and just 425 primarily low-income residents, scattered within the 17 acres of dilapidated buildings.

But after the New York City Council’s Dec. 19 zoning approval, Columbia’s expansion seems imminent. And the small group of working-class residents will be forced out over the next eight years — at which point Columbia officials expect construction on the area to begin — to look outside their neighborhood. Columbia is well on its way to purchasing the final 35 percent of the 17 acres on which it plans to expand.

And some residents are nervous.

Interviews with 10 West Harlem community members within the area and leaders of the Coalition to Preserve Community, the most vocal dissenting group, revealed that resentment — like Khan’s — still prevails among the residents of many in the statistically lower-income neighborhood. Meanwhile, Columbia officials said dialogue with community members has been ongoing and that it has promoted understanding and acceptance of the plan.

Still, resistance persists.

Three primary concerns came up in conversations with community members: that a biotechnology lab equipped to use hazardous agents will be constructed in the area, that gentrification is a possibility and that residents will be widely displaced. But Columbia has said it has will continue to address these concerns.

Change for the better?

From Columbia’s perspective, the expansion can have significant advantages for members of the local community. The physical changes to the area are only a small part of these benefits.

Columbia will provide a $150 million community-benefits agreement, the last $50 million of which was added the night before Dec. 19, when the zoning for the expansion was approved, the News reported last week. Columbia’s initial offer was $30 million, according to Theodore Kovaleff, a former dean of Columbia Law School and a member of the West Harlem Local Development Corporation, which negotiated the community-benefits agreement on behalf of the local community.

Although the expansion was approved by the City Council, Columbia must still negotiate with ConEdison, the Metropolitan Transit Authority and some local businesses over the use of the land they currently own.

Community and Columbia representatives agreed that this money will be beneficial for the community, because it will be used to undertake projects including building a new public school and providing aid for displaced residents. So far, Columbia’s discussions with local residents have focused particularly on issues of affordable housing, employment and access to education, said Warren Whitlock, Columbia’s director of Construction Coordination and the principle liaison between the university and the community.

Whitlock said the visible changes of the expansion will also have significant advantages for local residents and business owners. He said Columbia will change the face of local businesses and public spaces by bringing in new shops and upgrading parks.

“The university’s expansion into this area provides an enhanced and holistic community texture to West Harlem,” he said. “The area of West Harlem that we are speaking to — the Manhattanville area — is an area that is currently underutilized, and it’s been underutilized for many years.”

But members of the Coalition to Preserve Community beg to differ.

“Unless militant opposition is expressed on the streets, we identify that our voices will be muted if we are not able to illustrate that degree of number on the street,” said Nellie Hester-Bailey, executive director of the Harlem Tenants Council and a member of the CPC.

Some local residents feel that such change could increase the cost of rent in the area, thereby promoting gentrification. For this reason, the ethnic and socioeconomic landscapes of the area will change along with the physical landscape, Hester-Bailey said.

“We are going to see a change in the ethnic and economic demographics,” she said. “As the value of the real estate goes up, so does the pressure to push off the poorest of the people.”

Risky business

Beyond gentrification, Hester-Bailey said she and other residents are concerned about the research facilities with a Biosafety Level 3 designation. According to the Centers for Disease Control Web site, BL3 facilities allow researchers to work with dangerous biological agents that may be contracted through inhalation.

In response, Whitlock said it is important to remember that Columbia has been performing such research for decades. The university follows the most stringent safety precautions possible, he added.

“The facilities that we are contemplating developing are the same as the ones that we currently operate and are the same as other facilities in other areas in the city and across the country,” Whitlock explained.

James Perlotto, Yale’s chief of Student Medicine at University Health Services, said that as long as Columbia follows the already-proscribed regulations for BL3 labs, “the risk, even for a person in the next building, or across the street, will be very low, almost zero.”

Columbia faculty and students will also be living in the shared environment, and the university will not put anyone at risk, Whitlock said.

In addition, all new buildings in the expansion will be built to Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design Silver standards, said Victoria Benitez, senior public affairs officer for Columbia. LEED standards — universal guidelines for environmentally sustainable construction — are ranked in a four-level system from certified, the lowest level, to platinum, the highest. Silver is the second-lowest level.

But, for residents concerned about the biotech facilities, such an innovation is meaningless.

“There is an unending number of environmental problems that Columbia is avoiding [addressing], and they’re touting this silver LEED standard. Give me a break,” CPC leader Tom DeMott said.

Handouts distributed in Manhattanville by the CPC mention fears of “deadly viruses” and bio-terrorism research funded by the Department of Homeland Security.

Indeed, residents are still vocalizing these concerns, five years after many of them first heard of the plans. When asked about the source of their information about the potential problems, some residents cited the CPC, which has held community meetings, attended by roughly 50 to 400 people, every two or three months for the past four years.

Some community members question the legitimacy and accuracy of the information distributed by the CPC.

“[Some CPC members] have a tendency to spin information, and they sort of twist things a bit — stretch the truth a bit to work people up,” said Susan Russell, chief of staff for City Council Member Robert Jackson, who represents the majority of the area included in Columbia’s proposed expansion. “It’s one thing to engage in an honest dialogue and disagree. It’s another thing to try and control dialogue … to try to spin information.”

The money factor

But regardless of any differences of opinion, all the residents will face one obstacle when they pack up their bags and move out by 2015: money.

With city rents continually increasing, the predominantly low-income residents affected by the displacement may face challenges in finding new homes.

“Who can afford a $5,000 rent?” Khan asked about finding a new home. “How can I afford $5,000? We are a working-class people … we can’t get another apartment.”

And judging by the numbers, few Manhattanville residents can. About 16.7 percent of total residents in Manhattanville were eligible for food stamps in 2004, according to New York City data, more than double the U.S. average of the 8.2 percent of residents on the food stamps program in 2004 and the N.Y. average of 8.0 percent.

Most of the other residents interviewed expressed similar sentiments to those of Khan. They said they are concerned about their ability to find good affordable housing, despite Columbia’s pledge to help all displaced residents find comparable or higher-quality housing.

‘Out of the city’

Giselle Bueno, 14 — a student at Byckman Middle School in Inwood, the northern-most part of Manhattan — said she goes home every day after eight hours of constant school work to her three-bedroom apartment in 600 West 133rd Street. After greeting her two siblings, mother and father, she begins her homework in her “small” bedroom, which she shares with her seven-year-old sister.

Outside her room, Miguel, her father, works on the bills that he must pay with his temporary restaurant job downtown. Her mother cooks Dominican food. Both only speak to each other in Spanish.

“We’ve been doing fine,” Giselle Bueno said in a phone interview.

The Bueno family said they first heard of the Columbia plan through a New York Daily News article six months ago.

“It’s a quiet neighborhood,” Miguel Bueno said. “Not many people talk about Columbia.”

Asked about Columbia, Miguel and Giselle Bueno said there would not be a problem — they plan to move soon anyway. Where? “Out of the city,” Giselle said. “We can find housing there.”

Columbia officials have assured that construction on residential properties will not start until at least 2015.

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