The Senators Op-Ed: Defend Harlem From The Land Grab Effect On West Harlem And Beyond

June 13, 2024

By State Senator Cordell Cleare

On Juneteenth of this year at 11 am, a coalition will host a press conference to highlight how Columbia University’s Manhattanville Expansion has had a detrimental effect on the community in West Harlem. 

Their gargantuan enlargement has taken up huge stretches of the community, resulting in displaced businesses, skyrocketing rents, and the ushering in of “super-gentrification.”   

This all dates back to a deal signed in 2008 which barely survived legal scrutiny and was, at one time, struck down at the appellate level as an unacceptable abuse of eminent domain.  Columbia University, the proverbial elephant in the room, tipped their hand when they declared in 2007 that ““to keep pace with other leading universities, Columbia estimates that over the next 25 years, it must expand its program space by 5 to 6 million square feet, exclusive of support facilities such as parking and utilities.” 

Since the moment Columbia’s “vision” received the support of governmental bodies such as Empire State Development Corp. (ESDC) and The Public Authorities Control Board (PACB), they have been acquiring one of the most finite resources in Manhattan—land—with abandon.  They have used eminent domain to acquire whole city blocks. They have tapped into their $14 Billion endowment to purchase adjacent tracts of property, like the former Fairway supermarket and former McDonalds on 125th street, neither of which were subject to the original deal. Uptown residents wonder if there is a piece of property between 110th Street and the tip of Inwood that they have not tried to acquire.  

In a column that ran in the Harlem-based Amsterdam News in April 2024, it was stated that—“As New York City continues to grapple with a housing crisis, Black and brown renters are hit the hardest. Adding to the sting is the fact that Harlem’s eviction rates in 2024 are alarmingly higher than the rest of the city.” Harlem’s record-setting eviction rates are a direct result of Columbia’s unchecked land grab. 

Studies have shown that massive land acquisition by Universities may be good for the insular University community but they can be a bad deal for the surrounding areas. Columbia’s so-called “Community Benefits Agreement” is largely inadequate and has produced not one iota of the promised affordable housing nor have they developed a neighborhood school. Instead, I have people telling me every day that they have nowhere to live, cannot pay their rent, and have little to no access to these business opportunities with the school.

The Black population in West Harlem is shrinking. U.S. Census data from zip code 10027, which includes the Manhattanville campus and surrounding blocks was 51% Black in 2000, by 2010 that percentage dropped to 40%, in the 2020 census, 12 years after the Columbia deal was signed, only 33% of the residents of the Manhattanville neighborhood were Black.

Related: Read other The Senators Op-Ed articles here.

It is going to get worse in West Harlem. On Broadway and 125th Street, they have built a monster of a building.  It is this continued expansion that has the community up in arms and has led to our upcoming Juneteenth Press Conference at the Manhattanville Campus site at 129th Street and Broadway in front of Dear Mama Cafe.  We are fighting displacement and disrespect in our historic Harlem neighborhood.

The Juneteenth press conference with our community stakeholders will address the devastating effect of the Columbia expansion.

The Interfaith Commission for Housing Equality / Defend Harlem’s primary asks include: 

  • We call on Columbia to attend a public meeting with the community to answer our concerns.
  • We want a response to the letter written by Reverend Dedrick L. Blue, from the Interfaith Commission for Housing Equality, in February, that addresses the annihilation of West Harlem.
  • We want increased transparency from Columbia on their real estate portfolio and all planned acquisitions. 
  • We want them to provide to the community the Fairway Grocery property land to develop projects like Harlem on the Hudson, which was initially proposed by the Harlem Urban Development Corporation.
  • We want Columbia to cease its relentless expansion and displacement of West Harlem, and we as community members are the only ones who can hold them accountable.

New York State Senator Cordell Cleare

New York State Senator Cordell Cleare was raised in Harlem and her family has lived there for four generations.   Cleare is a product of the New York City public schools, including Brooklyn Technical High School.  Today, she is best known for her fight for Reparations, Truly Affordable Housing, Quality Schools & Equitable Education, Access to Healthy Foods as well as Economic, Environmental, Restorative and Racial Justice. She entered the New York State Senate on an express train from Upper Manhattan, bringing fresh ideas and legislative proposals to make New York, the state of the whole people.

Photo credit: Wiki

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