Facing the prospect of a drawn-out legal battle with at least one private landowner, the president of Columbia University, Lee Bollinger, is seeking conciliation in the final stages of the approval process for Columbia's $6 billion expansion plan.
Citing an explosion in "knowledge" over the past century, Mr. Bollinger in testimony said Columbia could no longer maintain its status as one of the world's pre-eminent universities if it is unable to expand.
"Over the past two to three decades, Columbia has run out of space," he said.
In July, the Empire State Development Corp. adopted the university's general project plan, which calls for new student housing, classrooms, and laboratory space on 17 acres just north of its Morningside Heights campus.
About 150 people were present at the City University of New York for the penultimate public hearing on the matter yesterday; the ESDC board's final vote is scheduled for the fall.
The majority of the testimony delivered early in the day skewed toward those in favor of the plan, but as the evening session drew on, an increasing number of opposition speakers were filing in.
Mr. Bollinger cited the creation of 6,000 permanent jobs, said city and state support was "vital," and said that as president he didn't want "in any way to be at odds with" Columbia's neighbors.
The opposition speakers zeroed in on the possible use of eminent domain.
Columbia owns 80% of the private property within the 17-acre expansion footprint, but four facilities owned by Nick Sprayregen and a gas station on West 125th Street remain within the footprint. University officials have been attempting to negotiate agreements with all property owners within the footprint but have not ruled out the use of eminent domain for nonresidential structures.
A local resident who is a member of Community Board 9, Walter South, said that if Columbia's leadership were to use eminent domain, they should give up their own homes in return. "If they are not going to give up their own homes, then they are absolute hypocrites," he said.
A local district leader, Mark Levine, said it was up to the ESDC to ensure that eminent domain be used only for public projects.
"You are the last best defense we have," he said.
Mr. Sprayregen said yesterday he would challenge the plan in court if it gains final approval. He said he planned to testify at the final hearing being held tomorrow.
Earlier in the day, Mayor Dinkins testified in support of Columbia's plan. He said the opposition to the plan was being fanned by "two or three people, yelling and screaming. That doesn't make it controversy."