Columbia As Engine Of Growth

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[Black Star Editorial]

Columbia University wants to grow in Harlem. It does not want to be seen as the conquering behemoth. Indeed, Columbia could become an engine of growth in Harlem.

Tomorrow Columbia officials go before two subcommittees at City Hall to answer questions related to its much-scrutinized plans to expand into a section of Harlem.

There have been cries by some activists that Columbia's expansion would be harmful to the Harlem community—That commercial and residential rents have been driven up, forcing small businesses to shut their doors.

Over the past decade, as midtown Manhattan rents soared, Harlem, with its rich housing stock –many had been abandoned, including by speculators and slum lords-became the destination of first choice. Businesses and downtown residents moved to Harlem—Columbia's proposed expansion fuels a heated engine, critics say.

Columbia says its growth as an international caliber institution of higher learning, necessitates the expansion, which covers four blocks from 125th and 129th streets to 133rd Street from Broadway over to 12th Avenue. Columbia also seeks three properties east of Broadway from 131st to 134th Street.

Columbia says it wants to create an open, publicly accessible, pedestrian-friendly academic environment. The area is currently primarily parking lots, warehouses, and some residential properties. University officials vow that after the development all streets will remain open to cars and pedestrians and that there will be "an innovative urban design" including environmentally friendly buildings.

The design will emphasize revitalized street life and public open space. This will be accomplished by building an underground continuous basement, similar to the area under Rockefeller Center, for parking, truck loading, and garbage storage, Columbia says.

Benefits to the community Columbia says include: 1,200 construction-related jobs each year for the next 22 years; 6,000 direct University jobs covering a wide range of experiences and educational background; and, 650 non-university jobs arising from more ground floor retail and restaurants through the expansion.

Given the unemployment levels in Harlem, and particularly as relating to African American males, the opportunities presented by Columbia should be welcome. But how many of these jobs will go to African Americans, especially males, who suffer the most abysmal unemployment levels?

Columbia says it has a standing goal of awarding a minimum of 25% of contracts for construction, maintenance and repair projects to minority-, women-, or locally owned firms (MWL). Officials say the University has consistently reached 33% levels. Yet, lower skilled people will need training for jobs.

At the same time, Columbia officials say the university is negotiating a Community Benefits Agreement with the West Harlem Local Development Corporation. This is good: When the developer Bruce Ratner's Forest City Co. embarked on developing the Atlantic  Navy Yard and downtown Brooklyn, it reached an unprecedented pact with the local community there, guaranteeing jobs and affordable housing.

University officials say Columbia already has committed $4 million to expand its existing support for legal aid services to tenants in Manhattanville--this includes protection from unlawful eviction or harassment. This is a program that needs to be promoted vigorously with Black media.

Columbia says it will create a $20 million housing fund which will be leveraged by affordable housing developers to create and maintain 1,100 affordable housing units. University officials say Columbia also will find "equal or better housing" for all those residents now in 132 residential apartments that will be affected by the proposed expansion. These resident will also be kept within Community Boards nine and 10.

The university says it will also build a permanent home for the Columbia-assisted public Secondary School for Math, Science and Engineering, currently in temporary space and provide half a million dollars to improve IS 195's playground and schoolyard.

There has been wide speculation that Columbia would seek to have the State invoke eminent domain to steamroll entities opposing expansion. Columbia officials say the "University has publicly committed to not ask New York State to consider eminent domain on the residential buildings or their tenants."

This of course means that there may be some heated battles ahead with businesses that refuse to sell to make way.

Subject to the outcome of the negotiations for a Community Benefits Agreement, The Black Star News strongly endorses the proposed Columbia expansion. The growth must live up to the job opportunities outlined by the university. We also advise that Columbia adopt the following recommendations into the plan.

Columbia should establish a joint program with Medgar Evers College, which already has a special program for Black males, to train more African American males with skills that will make them eligible for the jobs that will arise from the proposed expansion.

Columbia should, either independently or working with Carver Bank, create a special fund to subsidize commercial space rent for some of the struggling small businesses adversely impacted by the rise in Harlem rents in recent years.

Such subsidies would not be perpetual and would target businesses with good prospects, viability, profitability, and with good business plans.

Some thriving businesses, with no access to additional finance from banks or the Upper Manhattan Empowerment Zone, may not have been able to adjust to the rent "shock."

The proposed subsidy, for a limited and specified duration, would give such businesses opportunity over that period to thrive or adjust to a new reality. Few Black businesses ever get a fair chance.

Columbia can help change all this.

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