Columbia has promised $150 million for the neighborhood around its expansion zone in Manhattanville—and an organization working to actually disperse $74 million of that money is slowly emerging.
Those benefits were negotiated by a group of community members and politicians known as the West Harlem Local Development Corporation. Since the agreement was finalized in 2009, the University has paid $1.5 million into the LDC’s fund, but the LDC has not distributed any of it, held public meetings or given indications about its immediate plans for that money.
“I don’t think that it’s a secret the community has been angry and frustrated with the LDC in the past,” CB9 Chair Larry English said.
Now, LDC President Donald Notice says that plans are near completion for a new organization to take over the distribution of Columbia’s money, something he insists the LDC never had the authority to do. The new development corporation is moving forward with a different set of board members and specific procedures for giving money to community organizations—statements that local residents say they’ll be holding Notice to in the coming months.
Tensions over the LDC’s lack of accountability came to a head in late February, when members of West Harlem’s Community Board 9 called on the organization to disband completely.
“My sense is that there is growing frustration on the part of the community which has heard about benefit agreements and have yet to see any tangible benefit. On the other hand what they have seen immediately are the negative impacts (rats, air pollution) of a large and growing construction effort in Manhattanville,” CB9 member Brad Taylor said.
Notice said he understands locals’ frustrations with the pace of the process, especially now that demolition and construction are underway between 125th and 131st streets.
“They could care less about this corporation stuff. They know that money went to the LDC, and they want to see it going out the door, and that’s what we’re going to start doing this summer and sooner,” Notice said, his hand resting on a four-inch binder which he said contains the bylaws of the new organization, the West Harlem Development Corporation.
Notice said that they hope to have the new West Harlem Development Corporation established, and the LDC dissolved, by mid-July. Notice insisted that efforts at increasing accountability, like getting an office and phone number for the corporation, are all on the way.
“Right now, that’s number one on the agenda. This doesn’t work without having that presence,” Notice said.
An IRS representative said that there is no record of the LDC or the new development corporation currently having tax-exempt status—something the organization must have before it can access the money Columbia allocated.
Since the benefits agreement legally must be administered by a community organization; Columbia’s only role in the process is paying money into the community benefits fund. Yet neighborhood residents point to Columbia when benefits aren’t administered.
“When the community doesn’t know, it’s business as usual. Columbia may not be perceived that they’re doing what they’re supposed to be doing,” Notice said, adding that Columbia officials had expressed concern about that perception.
Communication between Notice, LDC members and University officials has increased in recent months, as the development corporation takes shape, and Columbia’s Executive Vice President Robert Kasdin described Notice as having “an extraordinarily difficult job.” But Maxine Griffith, executive vice president of government and community affairs, emphasized the limits of the University’s involvement.
“They have never asked—nor would it be appropriate for us to advise—regarding how they should be organized, or the timetable for their evolution,” Griffith said.
As for the disbursement of funds, “Yes, it has taken a bit of time, but you’d be asking a whole other set of questions if the funds had been spent quickly, but in a way that was not supportive of community needs,” said Griffith.
Meetings of the development corporation have now been scheduled on a monthly basis, and Notice committed to having an LDC or development corporation member at every general board meeting of CB9.
“I know they’ve struggled, but it will be, I’m confident, a very positive relationship,” University President Lee Bollinger said in March. “Community organizations often have difficulty sustaining themselves over time, but I think this is so important and the funding is so real that it will keep going. I’m confident that it will work itself out.”
Through the negotiation process with Columbia that took place from 2006 to 2009, the composition of the LDC had gone through drastic changes. Several members resigned to protest the LDC’s inaction. After facing sharp criticism recently, those involved with the LDC’s transition say they want to keep a lower profile.
“What has happened in the past should stay in the past,” English said.
The development corporation’s board will be smaller and more focused than the LDC’s membership, according to Notice. The nine politicians on the original LDC will become three politicians on the development corporation—City Council member Robert Jackson, State Senator Keith Wright, and Congressman Charlie Rangel—and community board appointments will be reduced to two.
“The board was unwieldy,” LDC and CB9 member Vicky Gholson said. “Just in terms of numbers, there were just too many people to be able to facilitate decision-making, or more basic than that, to facilitate having all of the people in the same room.”
English said that he will be appointing those two community board members to the development corporation this week.
“We are moving towards a more professional board,” English said. “Once they get organized and have the right people involved, any problems will work themselves out naturally.”
Abby Mitchell contributed reporting.