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August 16, 2007

DÉJÂ VU-LURP: an August hearing, astroturf, the race card and eminent domain for private gain

ColumbiaULURP-NLG.jpg Last night's Manhattan Community Board 9 ULURP Committee hearing on Columbia University’s proposed West Harlem expansion was a virtual replay of last year's ESDC hearing on Atlantic Yards: a different day, and a different developer, perhaps, but the same tensions running high (and frequently boiling over). Some of the fault lines, however, were drawn a little differently.

Like last year's Atlantic Yards hearing, the Columbia expansion hearing was held smack in the middle of August. Columbia University borrowed several pages from the developers' playbook, busing in an astroturf group to support the project, handing out slick four-color brochures, and the appearance of supporting construction trade unions. Over a hundred community members had to stand in line, of course, waiting for the astroturfers and local elected officials to leave and make room for many who wanted to speak or view the presentation.

I was one of those people who arrived on time, but too late to get in. [Norman Oder did get in; here’s his report on the first hour.] After three-plus years of Atlantic Yards, I feel like a veteran of these things, so I hunkered down for a long night. Though I went to West Harlem to deliver testimony on eminent domain abuse in NYC, I switched hats and started interviewing others waiting to get in. The following is a sampling from my conversations, and my observations.

Hearing organizers repeatedly told a crowd of nearly 200 people waiting to get in that they didn't anticipate the turnout, which rang hollow, since political theatrics between deep-pocketed developers and the community have been staged at nearly every recent controversial land-use hearing.

Among those in line were about 40 people from the tenants' rights organization Mirabal Sisters. The group is primarily concerned with displacement, both primary and secondary. Mirabal member Fausto Echauarria explained that secondary displacement is already happening, because "developers are coming to the neighborhood because of Columbia."

A "Junior Organizer" for the construction workers' union, Local 79, manned the sign-in sheet for members who showed up. The union's position is "for the project because we need work," though the organizer expressed sympathy for the community and stressed the jobs that would be going to residents. "When big projects come in we talk to community leaders; we have apprentice programs and train them for free."

The newbie astroturf organization is the Coalition for the Future of Manhattanville; the name is an apparent tweak to one of the groups spearheading the fight against the plan, the "Coalition to Preserve Community." Several community members waiting to get in recognized some of the men sporting stickers with the group's name as participants of a local drug-rehab program, Addicts Rehabilitation Center (ARC). A member of the group, who identified himself as Andrew from Newark, NJ, explained that the group founded by Reverend Reggie Williams supported a yes vote on the Columbia plan "with conditions."

A Community Board 9 resident from Hamilton Heights who came out to the hearing told me he recognized someone he knew to be homeless handing out flyers for the Coalition for the Future of Manhattanville. His concerns include the dangers of a Level 3 biotech facility - especially in a dense neighborhood, on a known fault line - and the importance of keeping the neighborhood working-class. Asked if he knew anyone who supported the plan, he thought for a moment, and said no.

By the time I got in an hour and a half after the hearing began, the room was packed, mainly with community groups who are against Columbia's expansion plan. The broad coalition that turned out to oppose the project is evidence that enduring animosity toward Columbia University runs much deeper than Brooklynites' persistent criticism of developer Bruce Ratner. Speakers supporting Columbia's expansion could hardly be heard over the chorus of boos. This was a reversal of roles from the Atlantic Yards hearing, at which project supporters were often as loud as, if not louder than, project opponents.

Several students spoke out very eloquently against the plan, including Laura Gabby, whom I had met outside while we waited in line. Gabby just completed her first year as a grad student in Columbia's School of Public Health. In her testimony, she cited the work of Dr. Mindy Fullilove, who has documented the effects of eminent domain in urban communities. Gabby has been active with the Columbia Student Coalition on Expansion and Gentrification, an organization who are advocating for a plan that won't displace community residents.

Testimony continued past 10:30 p.m. Columbia President Lee Bollinger was in attendance most of the evening, listening to testimony from project opponents with a mostly stoic expression. Most of those who spoke in favor of the plan passed by the seated Bollinger to receive warm embraces or appreciative handshakes.

When the meeting wrapped up, the Community Board ULURP Committee voted 17-1 against the Columbia expansion plan. The actual resolution has been posted on the CB9 Chairperson's blog.

One thing was abundantly clear. No matter what Columbia University learned from the developers' PR playbook, their divide-and-conquer strategy has been deployed late in the game compared with Forest City Ratner's campaign in Brooklyn. Ratner played the race card more effectively at last summer's Atlantic Yards hearing. Then again, the lingering animosity between the community and Columbia and perennial charges against the school of racial insensitivity, are quite likely insurmountable at this stage, so the University's efforts might be better spent wooing politicians through the back door via consultants like Bill Lynch.

Posted by lumi at August 16, 2007 12:33 PM