A sign on the side of the Tuck-It-Away self storage facility in West Harlem reads in both English and Spanish, "Stop Columbia! We won't be pushed out!"
The U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear an appeal by West Harlem business owners of Columbia University’s use of eminent domain on Monday. This paves the way for Columbia to expand their campus into the manufacturing zone of Manhattanville and means local business owners and residents must move.
In June, the New York State Court of Appeals ruled that Columbia could begin condemning private properties in the area using eminent domain—the process by which the government seizes private property for the “public good,” in exchange for payment of fair market value—as justification. The Supreme Court’s refusal to hear the appeal this week means there is nothing standing in Columbia University’s way.
After a four-year battle, building owners and tenants will have to vacate the properties in the area to allow for the university to proceed with their $6.3 billion development project of the 17-acre site that sits just north of Columbia’s Morningside Heights campus. According to the Columbia University Campus Planning Task Force, the area “consists primarily of the four large blocks from 129th to 133rd Streets between Broadway and Twelfth Avenue, including the north side of 125th Street, as well as three properties on the east side of Broadway from 131st to 134th Streets.”
The university will build mixed-use spaces as well as research facilities and classrooms for their business, arts, science and math and engineering schools. Those in support of the project maintain that this will improve the blighted neighborhood and create thousands of jobs.
“An institution like Columbia, committed to research and teaching, in addition to public service, has enormous value to the surrounding city,” University President Lee Bollinger told the Columbia Spectator earlier this year.
However, Nick Sprayregen, owner of Manhattanville storage company Tuck-It-Away, which will be forced to vacate does not agree. Though calls to Sprayregen were not immediately returned, in a series of YouTube videos about his uphill battle with Columbia University, he says, this condemnation is being used “in an abusive way and in a way that I think is unconstitutional in that the beneficiary is a private school.”
In addition to Tuck-It-Away, a handful of low-rise commercial buildings as well as two gas stations and a McDonald’s will be forced to move.
Tachira Tavarez, a neighborhood resident, agrees with Sprayregen. “I don’t think it’s fair. Where does the school expect us to go? They keep pushing us out,” she said.
This newest development project is not the first time Columbia has come after land in the West Harlem area.
According to the Coalition to Preserve Community (CPC), Columbia University has “actively pursued a policy of privatizing community facilities and displacing low-income residents in the surrounding communities.” On their website, stopcolumbia.org, they outline what they consider “decades of assaults which lave laid the groundwork for [Columbia University’s] current efforts.”
CPC says they can trace the “assaults” as far back as 1947 when Morningside Heights Inc. (of which Columbia University is a member), initially led and funded by David Rockefeller, sought out to stop “white-flight” and the growth of the Hispanic and Black communities in Harlem.
From 1954-1957, the university demolished 10-acres of land closest to the campus. The residents who were forced to vacate, according to CPC, were almost all low-income families.
The university purchased more than one hundred buildings in the area during the 1960s, in an effort to save the university. Then, according to CPC, as the new landlords, the university raised the rent again, displacing hundreds more minority and low-income residents from the area.
In 1968, Columbia attempted to take part of Morningside Park, in order to construct a private gymnasium for its students and faculty, according to CPC.
The local community as well as Columbia University students, who supported them, started one of the most effective uprisings on any U.S. college campus, taking over campus buildings, forcing the university to shut down for the rest of the term. The protesters sought to stop the project because it would have “privatized parkland that was once open to the public” and had “overtly racist overtones.”
According to CPC, in only eight years, Columbia University displaced over 3,000 Manhattanville residents by purchasing, and in most cases demolishing, the apartment buildings in which they lived.
As a mostly white university at its inception, to this day many see Columbia as a colonist and Harlem residents (the minority and low-income tenants in particular), as the Native Americans it keeps displacing to make room for their expansion.
“Columbia’s presence seems really oppressive,” Tavarez said. “I know it’s a prestigious university, but most people in this community won’t ever even have a chance of going there. It just doesn’t seem fair.”
The present issue:
According to Community Board 9 District Manager, Eutha Prince, who oversees Manhattanville, the issue of gentrification has been a problem for years.
“I have seen countless businesses close and many people leave the area,” she said. “They either can no longer afford to rent or they are forced to move by [Columbia University] expansion efforts. Gentrification is a big problem here in West Harlem.”
Despite the objections, according to the university’s Planning Task Force, the university is committed to creating “a new kind of urban academic environment that will be woven into the fabric of the surrounding community.”
The plan features “new facilities for civic, cultural, recreational, and commercial activity,” according to a statement on their website. “And its improved, pedestrian-friendly streets and new publicly accessible open spaces will reconnect West Harlem to the new Hudson River waterfront park,” the statement said.
While some feel that these improvements are at a great cost, others are looking forward to the changes.
“I actually think [the project] is a great idea,” Anne, an undergrad at Columbia, said. Anne declined to provide her last name, saying her opinion conflicts greatly with the majority of her classmates.
According to the task force, this kind of growth will generate thousands of new local jobs and ensure “Upper Manhattan remains a world center for knowledge, creativity, and solutions for society’s challenges.”
Despite some objections from the community, Columbia University’s 25-year expansion plan is expected to improve the appearance and overall property value of Manhattanville. The plans include major infrastructure improvements, including a renovated 125th Street subway station. In addition, the university plans to build a school for the community (which might be a charter).
These expensive changes are expected to improve the overall “curbside” appeal of the area. Many, however, wonder at whose expense.
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