Columbia Expansion Gets Uglier

Three board members resigned last week in a sign the fight is only getting nastier

The sweaty scrum over Columbia University's plan to expand into West Harlem got a little rougher last week, when three board members of the local development corporation abruptly resigned in protest.

Local activist Tom DeMott, local businessman Nick Sprayregan, and resident Luisa Henriquez pulled out of the 25-member board of the West Harlem Local Development Corporation last week, claiming the process is "rigged."

But one of their antagonists, Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer, was not unhappy to see the trio resign, calling them "obstructionist."

"Good riddance," Stringer tells the Voice. "The best thing they did was they resigned from the LDC. I applaud them for giving the community a fighting chance."

The West Harlem LDC was formed as a tool to work out a deal between the city and Columbia that would bring some kind of tangible benefit to a neighborhood about to be turned on its ear by the massive project.

Under the plan, Columbia wants to build a multibillion-dollar complex—including a big research lab and teaching facilities—that will total roughly 6.8 million square feet over the next 25 years, running along Broadway from 129th Street to 133rd Street. The city planning commission has signed off on it, leaving only the City Council to do likewise before the piledrivers get the green light to start pounding away.

But the act of falling on one's sword for a cause is so unfamiliar to today's fair-to-middlin' crop of city politicians that they must have scratched their collective heads at the move.

So why did this particular trio opt for the door? DeMott, a local activist with the Coalition to Preserve Community, says that a power grab by Manhattan Borough President Stringer, local councilman Robert Jackson and other pols forced his hand.

"When you're not told about meetings, or not allowed to participate in negotiations, what conclusion can you reach other than you're just being used as window-dressing?" DeMott says.

DeMott singles out Stringer for reaching what he describes as a secret agreement with Columbia. "He really pulled the rug out from under us," DeMott says. "He undercut our negotiating position, and did it all on the sly."

Nellie Bailey of the Harlem Tenants Council, another opponent of the project, called the Stringer deal "somewhat odd and suspect."

Stringer issued a press release in late September that said the agreement included "commitments" from Columbia to create a $20 million housing fund and $11 million in local park improvements over 25 years.

Stringer says his work and that of other local politicians actually kept the process from stagnating and enabled neighborhood residents to get something out of the university in exchange for backing the project. "I honestly believe we have worked to do the right thing here," Stringer says.

A message left with Councilman Jackson's office on Friday had yet to be returned.

Other city officials also view the resignations with skepticism. "These are folks who want to cut a deal," says one.

But State Senator Bill Perkins says the dispute is a sign of the residents' deep unease over the direction of discussions between the city and Columbia: "I think that they are very concerned about the integrity of the process, and rightly so."

Luis Tejada, a community activist with the Mirabal Sisters Cultural and Community Center, says he was nominated to serve on the LDC twice, but that his nomination was rejected both times by the representatives of the elected officials on the panel. "The community is 43 percent Latino, and only two of the 25 members of the board are Hispanic," he adds.

Tamara Gayer, a community-board member and artist, says the resignations are "very telling about how people feel in general about this project . . . . At some point, some people didn't want to feel like they [were] complicit in what was happening."

 
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