Columbia Expansion: The University Alienates Another Friend

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[Go here for our previous reporting on the perils of Columbia's expansion plans.]

As recently as one year ago, the owner of the Cuban restaurant Floridita had allowed Columbia University to use his business as a poster child of its grand expansion into West Harlem. The owner, Ramon Diaz, even let the university photograph him in front of the restaurant, a neighborhood fixture for more than three decades, for an op-ed in the Spanish language newspaper El Diario. The op-ed, which Diaz signed, circulated in support of the expansion in late 2007.

Columbia had always been good to Diaz. Since expansion plans were announced, Floridita was never considered the "blight" on the neighborhood the other businesses were deemed to be. The president of the university senate, and other officials, frequently made statements about Floridita's value to West Harlem. If others were going to be kicked out during the expansion, Diaz would be saved. In 2007, he signed a lease with Columbia to open up a tapas bar alongside his current location at 125th Street and Broadway.

But now Columbia has managed to alienate (another) former friend.

In December, Diaz received a letter from the Empire State Development Corporation, the state agency that had made the decision to sign off on eminent domain. The decision, issued in December, essentially gave Columbia the right to seize all the property in the neighborhood. The letter notified Diaz that his lease could be terminated at any time.

Diaz was shocked. The last time he spoke to Columbia officials, in October, things seemed different. At the time, he had been told he would have to relocate before his lease ended in 2015. But he had been given the impression, he says, that the relocation site would be jointly negotiated in advance and would be located within a few blocks of his current site. Columbia officials had even escorted the property owner to some potential relocation sites, but he started to become suspicious when Columbia reneged on the site that he chose. That was the last time he heard from the school.

The letter from ESDC, Diaz says, was like a slap in the face. "If Columbia University had intentions of keeping their word and relocating me, I should have at least gotten a call," Diaz tells the Voice.

Columbia spokeswoman Victoria Benitez says that the letter came from the state agency and didn't originate with Columbia. But it doesn't help Diaz that Columbia now seems wary of making assurances about Floridita's future.

When members of the student group Student Coalition on Expansion and Gentrification questioned school officials as to whether Diaz would be relocated, or whether his lease would be terminated, an administration member, La-Verna Fountain, said last Friday in an e-mail that the school had made "no assurances about any particular location or date when any such space will become available" to Mr. Diaz.  Benitez also issued a statement to the Voice today, saying that Columbia would engage in negotiations with Mr. Diaz sometime in the future, provided that he remains a tenant in good standing.

This past Saturday, about 150 students and neighborhood residents protested inside Floridita and offered a tour of the neighborhood.

The real lesson, of course, is not that Diaz is going to be kicked out ˆ for all anybody knows, he will still be relocated. The problem, however, is that with Columbia and the state calling all the shots, he doesn't know what will happen.

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