Columbia’s Land Grab
What Does it Mean for West Harlem?
For over a decade and counting, that institution about twenty blocks downtown — Columbia University — has rapidly expanded, acquiring large parts of the Morningside and Hamilton Heights neighborhoods. While the main campus sits on West 116th Street and Broadway, Columbia’s influence on the surrounding area has saturated a much larger radius. The university’s expansion greatly influences the economic, commercial and cultural landscape of West Harlem, redefining the boundaries between Harlem and the Upper West Side.
Where local mom and pop shops once stood, popular chain establishments such as Starbucks and Chipotle have proliferated. A check that would pay for two months’ rent might not cover one today. New faces have appeared in the neighborhood, too. West Harlem, an area historically associated with African Americans and the Harlem Renaissance as well as Hispanics, finds itself increasingly populated by people of other ethnicities, particularly Caucasian.
Is this change positive? The answer varies depending on who you ask. Long-time residents, newer inhabitants, and university students all have differing opinions about the college’s conquests thus far.
“I’ve lived here for over 35 years, and I’ve seen so much change,” says Nelson Rosa, a fixture in the community, as he walks down Amsterdam Avenue.
“This was one of my favorite parks,” he says, pointing to the corner of West 106th and Manhattan Avenue. This area right here was bought out in 1992 or 1993 and when they did that, they took away the park that used to have barbecues, parties, movies. I used to bring my kids here, we used to play in the park. But now the park has been replaced by condominiums; there’s four stories and they’re all worth about a million dollars each. Who, that was born here and raised here, can afford to live here?”
The Manhattanville Purchase
In 2007, the New York State Court of Appeals approved Columbia University’s proposal to acquire seventeen acres of land in the Manhattanville section of West Harlem for the construction of a new campus. According to a guide created by Columbia’s Student Coalition on Expansion and Gentrification, Columbia’s $6.3 billion expansion plan includes the demolition of all buildings on site (with the exception of three historical sites), elimination of many local businesses and warehouses, and the relocation of tenants from over one hundred thirty apartments. Local groups fought back: For example, the Coalition to Preserve Community called the move “draconian” at the expense of working-class residents. Community Board 9 proposed an alternative and passed a resolution condemning the use of eminent domain -- the process through which the state can forcefully seize private property for public use in exchange for market level compensation -- as a corporate development tool. (A timeline of events leading up to 2007 can be found here.)
According to the official Manhattanville expansion website, demolition and construction on-site officially began in July 2008. However, the ban on eminent domain established by The Empire State Development Corporation (ESDC) 2006 still loomed large, preventing holdout properties from being bought out. In the following years, the ESDC would reverse its ruling on eminent domain while the New York State Supreme Court maintained the illegality of this ability to seize private properties. The ensuing back and forth would conclude with the Court of Appeals, the state’s highest court, declaring the use of eminent domain legal in June 2010, paving the way for Columbia’s complete seizure of the area.
In reaction to the good news, Lee Bollinger, president of Columbia University, affirmed in a 2010 Columbia Spectator article that the moment was “very special” for Columbia, adding that it marked a “historic opportunity for the university to grow over the next four to five decades.“
“As knowledge grows and fields grow, we need more faculty, you need a certain scale. And you need a place to put them,” said Bollinger, back in 2006 as justification for the expansion.
Bollinger, well aware of the repercussions on the community that keep locals wary, reassured that “everything we’ve done has been with the spirit of integrating a campus into the community.” He added that the new campus would not only nurture intellectual progress but also revitalize public interest in the area.
Now in 2015, Phase I of the expansion, which includes the Jerome L. Greene Science Center, the Lenfest Center for the Arts, the Columbia Business School, and the University Forum and Conference Center, enters its final stages, right on time for the campus’ grand opening in 2016. Phase II will begin shortly after.
Despite Bollinger’s claims to consider the needs of the community, locals have adamantly opposed the idea of sharing their space with Columbia since the original proposal in 2003.
In a 2014 article featured in New African Magazine, Kaaw Sow, general manager of the Senegalese Association of America (SAA) located in the “Little Senegal” area of Harlem, clearly expressed his feelings on the changes in his community. “This gentrification is affecting us mentally,” said Sow. According to Sow, the rent of the SAA offices rose from $1,300 to nearly $6,000 upon the arrival of wealthier tenants. “They are making us go away and it won’t be ‘Little Senegal’ anymore when we have to go away.”
Sow’s words highlighted the concerns of longtime residents in the community worry that the waves of change will eventually sweep them away to make room for the new. This concern had already manifested itself in several acts of public outcry since 2003.
On June 10th, 2006, two local non-profits –- The Coalition to Preserve Community and Project Remain: Nos Quedamos -- combined efforts to rally thousands of Harlem residents to march from the tip of the Manhattanville expansion at 135th street up to Dyckman street (West 200th) in an effort to protest the expansion plan. On April 27th of the same year, Manhattanville tenants, local shop-owners and workers at risk of the mass evictions occurring at the time marched through Columbia’s campus and to the doors of their administrative buildings. These as well as other community efforts to prevent Columbia’s expansion are documented on the Coalition’s site.
To pacify the situation, Columbia signed a Community Bargain Agreement (CBA) with the West Harlem Development Corporation (WHDC) in 2009 which committed millions of dollars to provide various benefits including affordable housing, employment, an increased emphasis on education and academic resources, and funding for local organizations, to residents of the area.
According to WHDC officials, the group has provided $8 million in grants to support nonprofit organizations in providing services to the residents in the areas of education, workforce development, arts and culture, housing, community facilities and the environment. It has also secured $10 million to develop affordable housing, an effort that is ongoing.
Marlene Naanes, a representative of WHDC believes that the CBA has made a big difference and will continue to have a positive effect on the community. “We believe with the funding from WHDC that the future of West Harlem is brighter,” says Naanes.
Aside from the PR spin, she acknowledges the downside of the expansion. “We must remember that at the same time, gentrification will be occurring due to the expansion,” she says, “so we will lose some of our longtime residents and businesses.”
Local organizations benefiting from WHDC funding include: The CCNY Continuing and Professional Education Program, which uses the funding to provide scholarships; Lifeforce in Later Years, Inc., which helps senior citizens live comfortably in their homes; and the Harlem Educational Activities Fund (HEAF) which provides career development and professional resources to underprivileged youth in the area. (A complete list of organizations receiving WHDC funding can be found here.)
While local organizations benefit from the funding provided by the CBA, statistics show that that the promise of affordable housing has not yet been met. According to data accumulated by New York University’s Furman Center for Real Estate and Urban Policy, beginning in 2005, around the time the expansion movement began to gain ground, the percentage of severely rent-burdened households -- families that spend more than 50% of income on rent -- steadily increased from year to year. Between 2002 and 2008, the average rent of a unit in the neighborhood increased from $1,200 to $1,900 while the median household income didn’t keep pace.
The increase in rent goes hand in hand with the shift in demographics in the area. The black population in Morningside/Hamilton Heights decreased from 29.11% to 20.14% between 2000 and 2010, according to census data. In contrast, the white population increased from 20.27% to 27.47% in that same period of time
Longtime local businesses in the area feel the effect of these changes as well. Mohammed, a cashier at Super Style Deli Food in West Harlem, has taken note. “It has been the same thing for the past six years; white people move in, and the rent in the buildings goes from $1000 to $3000,” says Mohammed, who offered only his first name. “They fix it up and make it nice and more expensive -- same thing for six years.”
Paul, of Barbara’s Flowers, a neighboring store, shares a similar sentiment. Since the establishment opened in 2005, Paul has seen the neighborhood change in front of him. “You know how it is. Rent goes up, new people move in, and you see the changes,” he says. “Ten to twelve years ago, you walk down this block from 135th down to 110th and it looks completely different.The buildings, the people, everything.”
Elsia Vasquez, founder and president of Pa’Lante Harlem, a non-profit tenant advocacy, challenges the idea that the CBA would improve the housing situation of local residents. “Unsavory landlords are looking to exploit the same students that Columbia is bringing into the community,” says Vasquez, whose organization receives WHDC funding. “The way they’re looking at these longtime tenants is—‘I don’t want your $800 rent. I can find someone who is completely oblivious to how the rent laws work, who is completely new to this community and I can charge them $3,000. They’re not gonna ask me any questions.’”
Under this notion, landlords resort to underhanded tactics to squeeze longtime residents out in favor of more favorable business ventures. According to Vasquez, tactics used include not paying for repairs, unwillingness to accept monthly payment in order to take the case to court, destabilizing rent-stabilized apartments, and a bevy of other shady schemes.
She see an end to the situation in the near future and urges the community to fight back. “We suspect that Columbia will continue to expand and no, it will not be a good thing for community residents,” says Vasquez. “The community needs to be made aware of their legal rights and take a stand. We need to hold people accountable when they are not addressing the issues in the community—people meaning elected officials, the West Harlem Development Corporation, and Columbia University.”
The Road Ahead
When the Manhattanville campus opens in Fall of 2016, it will mark the largest expansion in recent memory by a New York City university. The campus will span from 130th Street down to 125th between Riverside Drive and Broadway. This signals the end of Phase I of construction. Phase II, which tentatively includes buildings for systems biology, earth and population sciences, international and public affairs, and graduate student housing, will commence shortly after. According to Columbia’s official facilities website, Phase II is expected to be completed by 2030 and will effectively double the current size of the campus.
If history is any indication, the local neighborhood around the Manhattanville campus will continue to change as Columbia settles in and the community adapts to the university’s presence. Local concern about how the new will mesh with the old continues. “Harlem has never been the buildings; it’s never been the place. It’s been the people, the connection, the relationships,” says Reverend Mike Walrond of Harlem’s First Corinthians Baptist Church in a recent article featured in The Guardian. “As those things begin to fade, something of the identity of the community is going to fade as well. That is a great fear of mine.”
CCNY professor Daniel Disalvo doesn’t share Walrond’s fear, believing there are larger forces at work than just Columbia’s presence. “Like it or not, New York City is about churn and change. Just like any change in life, some people will benefit and some people will be hurt,” says Disalvo, a political science professor. “West Harlem will change and over 90 percent of that change will have nothing to do with Columbia’s expansion.”
Professor Disalvo and his wife moved to 137th Street and Riverside Drive in West Harlem from Brooklyn several years ago and can attest to this change. “New York, like many other metropolitan areas, has seen great expansion and increase in property value over the last two decades, and certain areas have become unaffordable for middle class people,” Disalvo continued. “These folks and young professionals are being funneled out of Brooklyn and areas south of 96th Street Manhattan and into Harlem. In response, businesses in the area will cater more to their tastes. Fancy coffee shops and wine bars will open to cater to this clientele and developers will try to create new buildings and refurbish old ones to accommodate them.”
It’s inevitable, Disalvo concludes: “This process will not stop because New York is too attractive a location to live in.”