By Francisco Miguel Araiza
Traveling on the 1 train through northwest Manhattan, one is bound to see a sprawling construction zone adjacent to the 125th Street Station. Hundreds of workers and an array of machinery dot the urban landscape, standard fare in ever-expanding New York City. For months, I diligently commuted from my home in Washington Heights to SIPA. Little did I know that I was passing the foundations of Columbia University’s Manhattanville expansion: SIPA’s controversial new West Harlem home.
Since real estate is at a premium in New York City, the contentious battle has involved university, city, state, and community. Unfortunately, two important demographics have been left out of this debate: the Columbia students and West Harlem residents who will be sharing the contested space. Despite the social justice and public policy implications of the project, Columbia University students are not encouraged to critically en- gage the Manhattanville project.
Olubunmi “Bunmi” Akinnusotu (MPA ‘14), an Urban and Social Policy (USP) concentrator, commutes from Washington Heights to Morningside Heights. Like me, Bunmi was unaware that her daily routine included catching a bird’s eye view of the Manhattanville expansion. Earlier in the spring semester, Bunmi visited the Manhattanville site as a part of Professor Kristina Ford’s Planning and Implementing Urban Public Policy course. As an urban policy student, Akinnusotu understands the university’s hesitation to include students in the Manhattanville conversation.
“It would create a scenario where there are too many cooks in the kitchen. The project would simply stall,” said Akinnusotu.
But a more patient university expansion could have its benefits. Columbia has been criticized in the past for its treatment of the West Harlem community during campus expansions, particularly since the 1960s. The Manhattanville expansion has raised familiar concerns.
The latest controversy began over the use of eminent domain, the power reserved by states to seize private land for the “public good.” While private landowners receive compensation, based on fair market value for the property, they forcibly surrender the title to their property. In recent years, the definition of “public good” has expanded as a result of contentious legal battles. Columbia contributed to this debate by requesting that the Empire State Development Corporation (ESDC), a New York State agency, invoke eminent do- main for the benefit of Columbia’s expansion.
In New York State, eminent domain can only be invoked if the land has been declared to be suffering from “urban blight.” In 2004, Columbia used this guideline to facilitate the purchase of a few holdout business properties in the Manhattanville area. Concerns were raised by the local community because the area in question was largely abandoned due to Columbia’s purchase of surrounding properties.
Further complicating matters, ESDC used a former Columbia con- tractor to lead the investigation, which resulted in the state invoking eminent domain in 2008. Columbia was thus able to purchase the remaining land and, although the ESDC’s decision faced legal challenges, the New York State Supreme Court rule that the purchase was legal.
Kalyani Thampi (MPA ‘14), another USP student, heard about the controversy surrounding the Manhattanville project prior to starting at SIPA. Thampi worked as an advocate in the Harlem community and had already developed an unfavorable view of the project. Participating in Professor Ford’s class helped her to “temper the visceral reaction [to the expansion],” she said. According to Thampi, Professor Ford’s class helped her to “understand the university’s perspective and [its] challenges.”
Emotions are nevertheless raw. During one of Thampi’s visits to Harlem, a resident in her early 30s approached her. Pointing to her SIPA backpack, the Harlem resident said to Thampi: “You people should get out of our ’hood.”
“This conflict has been privatized and this dialogue is staying out in the margins,” Thampi said afterwards.
Akinnusotu, on the other hand, has her doubts that more dialogue would accomplish anything. “Even if the school were transparent would people even care?” she asked.
History may be a guide. In 1968, students protested CU’s proposed expansion into Morningside Park, the prospective site for a new Columbia University gymnasium. The protests were fueled by a plan to limit Harlem residents’ access to the gym facilities, which would effectively have created segregated facilities for private and public access. The Morningside Park gymnasium was eventually abandoned.
Akinnusotu is still skeptical that students would get involved, arguing that the activism of the 1960s was a “part of the culture and time.” Nevertheless, she said, “The hope is that the school is doing what it can to be fair.”