Urbanist Celebrated, Expansion Criticized in Tour

What began as a tour of Manhattanville for the Municipal Art Society’s celebration of renowned urbanist Jane Jacobs, quickly shifted into a discussion of the possible negative ramifications of Columbia’s proposed expansion plan.

“This is not an issue of whether or not Columbia University expands, but how they expand,” said Ron Shiffman, an urban planner from the Pratt Institute, an organization which helped Community Board 9 design a set of alternative guidelines for development in the area.

Following Jacobs’ philosophy about urban planning, the tour highlighted the destructive nature of eminent domain and the necessity of low-income housing and old buildings in maintaining a vibrant community.

Tour guide and author of Manhattanville: Old Heart of West Harlem, Eric K. Washington cautioned against Columbia’s possible use of eminent domain. “Eminent domain has in the past been used for good public projects such as creating Central Park,” he said. Shiffman added, “but when we chose one private owner like Columbia over all other private owners, it becomes dangerous.”

Shiffman questioned Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer’s decision to support Columbia’s expansion plan after the University committed to a $20 million affordable housing fund and $11.25 million to the upkeep of a public park. “His bottom line is fundamentally wrong and his report skirted the main issues,” Shiffman said. “The $20 million promised for housing will not create more than 60 apartments for low income housing.”

Kathy Andio, a social worker in the area who was on the tour, said she was worried about the real estate limitations for young people. “Lots of landlords are opting not to rent to new people, instead they are holding out to sell to Columbia.”

More than half of the tour group had never been to the Manhattanville area before. There were no undergraduate students on the tour.

“This is an immigrant community,” said Tom Kappner, a local resident and member of the Coalition to Preserve Community. Kappner, who originally came to the Harlem area as a Columbia College student, has continued to reside there because he said he felt immediately at home in its diversity.

Shiffman said he hopes that in the future, “the student body and faculty will come out and discuss why they chose this community, considering diversity is such an appealing factor of the area and the University.”

Juliana Richard can be reached at news@columbiaspectator.com.

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