Wednesday, November 11, 2009

`COLUMBIAGATE': Is Columbia University's West Harlem-Manhattanville Campus Expansion Project Illegal?--Part 3

In a January 21, 2009 petition to the First Judicial Department of the Supreme Court of the State of New York Appellate Division, a New York City civil liberties lawyer named Norman Siegel presented the legal case against allowing the Columbia University Administration to move forward on its 17-acre campus expansion project in the West Harlem-Manhattanville neighborhood, just north of West 125th Street.

According Siegel’s January 21, 2009 petition:

“Manhattanville is a riverfront community in West Harlem…

“…The number of jobs in the area was rising until Columbia began buying the area up in 2002.

“…At least since the 1960s Columbia has been looking to expand beyond the confines of its Morningside Heights campus, to acquire land and to build in Manhattanville and West Harlem. Already in 1960 Columbia was seeking to take over the Manhattanville industrial area with a…development scheme. Columbia’s attempt to take over part of nearby Morningside Park to build an athletic facility brought community relations to a boil in 1968…

“After 2002, Columbia’s acquisition activity in Manhattanville accelerated. By the end of 2005 it had acquired or entered into contract on 28 of 67 properties in the area. In approaching property owners, Columbia sought to portray the use of eminent domain as certain and inevitable, urging owners to sell now at the low price they were being offered or have their property taken by eminent domain.

“As Columbia acquired property, it applied pressure to remove all tenants except for the few it intended to incorporate into ground floor retail spaces in its proposed campus.

“Columbia refused to renew leases except on commercially unreasonable one year terms, and with provisions effectively providing for summary termination at Columbia’s sole discretion.

“Columbia exaggerated alleged building defects as a pretext to require tenants to relocate, but in relocation, offered smaller spaces and covered only a fraction of relocation costs.

“Columbia refused to perform repairs when asked by tenants. At 609 West 125th Street, for example, Columbia refused to repair major leaks from skylights and roof over the space rented by the Eritrean Community Center of Greater New York, a tenant it sought to remove, even while it replaced the roof over the section of the same building rented by Floridita, a restaurant it had designated for incorporation into the new project.

“Columbia refused to conduct fa├žade repairs, and left in place indefinitely sidewalk sheds obscuring tenants’ store fronts and signage, without compensation.

“Columbia added inappropriate charges to rent, including for structural repairs that were the owner’s responsibility, and refused to recognize lease modifications by the prior owner.”