History Lesson

Three decades after the drama of '68, will Harlem make room for Columbia?

Community activists have several beefs. One is the school's plan for a biological- research lab, which could gain a biosafety rating of up to level 3, meaning it might handle pathogens like anthrax and West Nile. Opponents say that kind of facility is too risky to locate near housing complexes, especially after 9-11 and particularly since the EPA in 2002 cited Columbia for mishandling hazardous waste. Columbia says no one's health or safety was endangered by the EPA violations. Their proposed lab won't handle real horror-show stuff like Marburg and Ebola viruses, like Boston University's planned level 4 lab in Southie. And Columbia already has a level 3 lab, although officials aren't eager to say where.

The chief complaint of activists, though, is the lack on information about just what kind of lab Columbia is planning; the school says it knows roughly where the facility will go, but not what work will be done there. The same goes for what will happen to residents. The New York City Department of Housing Preservation and Development owns four of the residential buildings in the area. Two are about to be transferred to a nonprofit for rehabilitation. Two others are in the Tenant Interim Lease (TIL) program, in which residents apply for conversion to a low-income co-op and are allowed to purchase their units for $250. Neil Coleman, a spokesman for HPD, says that there have only been preliminary talks with Columbia and that the city has told the school that it must offer the tenants nothing less than they'd get in their present digs. That could mean coming up with a replacement building for the TIL tenants. "No such offer has been made," Coleman says. Columbia vows that all tenants will get equal or better situations.

When it comes to the 70-odd businesses that could be displaced, however, Columbia is making offers. Stollman, a former Columbia student who for 20 years has used a warehouse in the expansion zone, says the university started out threatening to shut down the building's elevator. Then the school lightened up, hiring a guy to run the elevator and offering relocation deals of better space at the same rent in the same area.

Columbia's new turf? Across 125th Street
Columbia's new turf? Across 125th Street

Scott Lacock, for one, isn't fazed by the impending move for his plumbing-supply outfit, which employs about 30 workers hailing from the city and beyond. Heck, Lacock says, he might even gain some business when people in a new neighborhood see his trucks. Either way, he has no complaints: Columbia has been his landlord for years, and he was told early on that his stay would be temporary. "I'm very thankful," he says.

With its physical size and financial power, Columbia can look like the 800-pound gorilla to its neighbors, and critics see the Manhattanville proposal as a gorilla-sized invasion. But Kasdin says going big was deliberate. In the past, Columbia has acquired properties one by one and battled with neighbors over what to build there. "There were regular clashes over our opportunistic and incremental approach to growth," he says. "The way in which this has been done has not served the university or the community." The Manhattanville proposal is an attempt at a more comprehensive approach, he adds, in which the school and the community understand each other's long-term needs. Columbia is quick to emphasize the friendlier aspects of its push: a community benefits agreement, open streets, and ground-floor retail. The school's steady pace of land acquisition is meant to negate the need for eminent domain.

For skeptics of the plan, however, the problem is bigger than Columbia. It's the development craze that's roiling Harlem block by block, displacing tenants and replacing neighborhood stores with flashy franchises. Similar forces are acting citywide: The small industry that moves out of Manhattanville will compete for space with similar firms uprooted from Williamsburg, and maybe Willets Point. The areas where blue-collar work is welcome are dwindling.

Kasdin says Columbia's development will offer "the full range of jobs, from unskilled to tenured faculty" with good pay and full benefits in an area where employment has plummeted 35 percent in the past two decades. The area's parking lots and wide-open factory floors reflect untapped potential. But Columbia's opponents say the area can prosper without abandoning its industrial roots. "If this were a mixed-use area which still supported the idea that manufacturing was a valuable and beneficial thing as a city, you would see a dramatic increase in local employment opportunities in that same 30-year period," says development opponent Tom DeMott.

Even in boomtown New York, somebody's going to need that 100 percent brushless car wash.

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