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Protesters Say Columbia Not Living Up to Expansion Promises

By Jeff Mays | March 9, 2011 7:40am

By Jeff Mays

DNAinfo Reporter/Producer

HARLEM — More than 50 people protested outside Columbia University's Harlem employment information center Tuesday, saying the university has failed to provide the jobs that were promised as part of its expansion into West Harlem.

Protesters from the Coalition to Preserve Community, which includes Columbia students, said that the university had ignored complaints from residents that the promised jobs have not materialized, while forcing local vendors out of business to accommodate its expansion.

"We are keeping up the pressure on Columbia University to start providing some of those 6,000 jobs they promised," said Nelly Bailey, president of the Harlem Tenants Council.

Columbia is extending into West Harlem on 17 acres of land from West 129th to West 133rd streets, between Broadway and 12th Avenue. The $6.3 billion plan will see the creation of 6.3 million square feet of space, with the first phase of the project scheduled to be completed by 2015. Later phases are scheduled to be completed by 2030.

The university says that 68 percent of the contracts, worth $19.5 million for the construction area have been awarded to minority, women and locally owned firms and 66 percent of construction hours worked have been performed by those same firms.

"As the extensive public approval process has made clear, Manhatanville is a long-term plan for the next several decades in these post-industrial blocks that have been largely characterized by parking lots and warehouses," Columbia University spokeswoman Victoria Benitez said in a statement. "As a result, the 6,000 university jobs will be added over time and the total fully realized when the new campus is complete."

Unemployed union laborer Noel Sanchez said he did not believe the university. He went to the employment center at 3180 Broadway, one block from West 125th Street, a year ago to apply for a job. He says he received a notice from the university saying they were interested in hiring him but never heard from anyone after that.

During the protest, Sanchez went into the employment information center again and said he was told they did not know what became of his application and that he should reapply.

"I didn't have any work and couldn't pay my rent when I [first] came in. I was desperate," said Sanchez. "Even today, they are giving me nothing but excuses."

Ramon Diaz, the owner of Floridita restaurant, said the university relocated him from his old spot on Broadway to a new building on 125th Street near 12th Avenue. But once he tried to move into the building, Diaz say the Department of Environmental Protection told him that there was asbestos that needed to be remediated.

He says the cost would be $200,000 but that he felt Columbia should be responsible for the clean-up. Diaz said he was about to file a suit against Columbia.

"Floridita has been a part of this community for 37 years. I promised my employees that we would reopen in three months. It's 11 months later and 29 out of my 40 employees are still unemployed," Diaz said.

Stories like Diaz' and Sanchez' were proof that the expansion plan should be reviewed, said Tom DeMott from the Coalition to Preserve Community.

"It's not a matter of rhetoric to say that Columbia must pull back and rethink this project," said DeMott. "There are still businesses along this stretch and a lot of the construction has not started. There's still time to find another way to do this."