By Mike McPhate
As Columbia moves forward with a plan to expand its campus into the west Harlem neighborhood of Manhattanville, school officials are speaking out to try to allay concerns about the safety of the site.
By 2030 the university hopes to occupy the 17-acre area parallel to the waterfront from West 125th Street to 133rd Street and between Broadway and 12th Avenue. Included in the $7 billion plan are six academic buildings, seven research buildings, one retail building, and two residential buildings.
Community leaders have criticized the university’s plan to operate hazardous-material laboratories at the site. The university has not provided specifics of what will be housed in the labs, but the proposed safety designation for at least one lab, biosafety level 3, would allow research on deadly substances like anthrax and the West Nile virus.
The university has tried to reassure locals that it has improved its safety protocols since 2002 when it was fined nearly $800,000 by the Environmental Protection Agency for improperly handling hazardous chemicals at its Morningside Heights campus.
“Those EPA citations had nothing to do with placing anybody in harm in any way whatsoever,” said La-Verna Fountain, a spokesperson for the university.
Some have called upon the university to simply house the labs in a less populated area. Fountain said though that such a standard would require the city to banish its many hospitals, which also handle hazardous materials.
She added, “Because of this research that we’re talking about I hope that we do not ignore the good that it’s designed to do. What we’re talking about is finding ways to improve the lives of people whether we’re talking about diabetes, Alzheimer’s.”
Nellie Hester Bailey, director of the Harlem Tenants Council, said many are worried about the plan for 1.5-million-square feet of underground construction. She said a flood or other disaster could be ruinous, flushing toxins into the neighborhood. “These things are clearly not hard to imagine,” she said.
Jordi Reyes-Montblanc, chairman of Community Board 9, said much of the distrust has been sown by the university’s failure to communicate openly about its plans, including details about the materials to be handled in the bio-labs.
Fountain said that the university’s attention has been focused on acquiring the land. (It now controls 65 percent of the 17-acre site.) Plans for the labs’ research, “is way ahead of us,” said Fountain.
Good will toward the university has long been scant in West Harlem, where memories still resonate of the confrontation in 1968 when the university drew accusations of racism for creating a separate entrance for mostly black residents to its gymnasium.
Residents often site as an example of the university’s lack of good faith the revelation in the press that it had applied to the state to invoke eminent domain, or forced eviction, against businesses that refuse to leave the expansion area. “If you want a partner, it has to be equal,” said Reyes-Montblanc. “We’re not going a silent partner, and we’re not going to be a minor partner.”
Fountain dismissed the accusation that the university has not been forthright. School officials have held over 100 meetings with local leaders, she said. “We’ve already been very, very open.”