By Z.L.R. Stavis
The voices of Harlem business owners and residents reverberated in unison last night, as members of Community Board 9 unanimously voted to oppose the potential use of eminent domain in Columbia's expansion into Manhattanville.
"I don't think I've ever seen such unanimity," said Secretary Theodore Kovaleff.
The resolution passed with all 29 members voting for it. "29 to 0; I've never seen better," said Norman Siegel, an attorney for the West Harlem Business Coalition and a prominent civil liberties lawyer.
"I've never seen that in New York. That's the writing on the wall. This will send a strong message to Columbia that we're fighting back."
The board passed a resolution to recommend to the city not to use eminent domain, a legal path by which the city can forcibly purchase properties to be cleared for public use. Columbia is allegedly urging the city to use eminent domain to make way for its Manhattanville expansion plan, which includes the area between 125th and 133rd Streets between Broadway and 12th Avenue.
"Eminent domain has been abused for over 25 years," Siegel said. "It is for public use, not private gain. Public use is a library, a public school, not a private school and not for private use."
Twenty community members also expressed their support for the resolution at the meeting. LaVerne Williams works for an organization that houses Harlem artists; the non-profit recently renovated a building in Columbia's expansion area. "Hopefully Columbia will not usurp the land and will consider that Harlem needs to be Harlem and not Downtown Uptown," Williams said.
"It will not happen, only over my dead body," said Jordi Reyes-Montblanc, Chairman of Community Board 9. For what he said was the second time in 10 years, Reyes-Montblanc stepped up to the podium to speak personally on an issue. "They will have to drag my dead body to pass it. Other than that, Columbia is a nice organization," he joked.
Tom Kappner of the Coalition to Preserve Community proposed an alternative to eminent domain. "197-A Plan provides for a measured and balanced development, not a plan to bulldoze the area," Kappner said, stressing the importance of unity.
Tom Demott, also of the CPC, said, "The fact of the matter is, Columbia's trying to Godfather the community. The fact of the matter is, they're making us an offer we can refuse."
Seigel said, "This is a David and Goliath issue. I hope Community Board 9 winds up on the side of David. And for cynics who say that you can't win, I remind you, historically and biblically, David did win and so will we," a line that was greeted by loud applause.
Other issues raised at the meeting included installing a disability ramp at St. Luke's Hospital, renaming 141st to 145th Streets after Harlem performing artist Dorothy Maynar, as well as promoting a scholarship for computer technician training, an independent job development company, and the Harlem School of the Arts.
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