Three and a half years after its founding, the organization charged with distributing millions of Columbia’s dollars to the Manhattanville neighborhood is still not operational—despite claims earlier this year that it would be ready to go by the fall.
As per the Community Benefits Agreement, which was signed by the University and the West Harlem community in 2009, the West Harlem Local Development Corporation is supposed to distribute $76 million for initiatives related to housing, education, and job training in Manhattanville over 16 years.
Currently, the WHLDC still does not have a website, an office, or a set timeline nor has it released information about its board members or programs.
Since 2009, the University has paid $3.55 million to the WHLDC’s fund according to University officials, but residents and community organizers alike complain that there is still no application process by which organizations can apply for funds or means to distribute them. The apparent lack of transparency has led some residents to take more direct action.
Current Congressional candidate and SIPA graduate Vince Morgan accused the organization of spending hundreds of thousands of dollars restructuring the board and hiring consultants, but still remaining “a shell of an organization” in an open letter to the WHLDC on Oct. 24.
“The WHLDC has been plagued with problems since its inception,” Morgan wrote. “There’s never been a process in place that allows for transparency on the selection of the board members themselves.”
Morgan is not alone in his criticism.
Last February, West Harlem’s Community Board 9 called to disband the WHLDC for its lack of accountability, with residents expressing frustration that they had not seen any tangible benefits stemming from the allocated funds.
In recent months, members of Community Board 9, the district directly affected by the Manhattanville and partially responsible for drafting the Community Benefits Agreement, have argued that the WHLDC must be more accountable.
The members of the WHLDC include two representatives from the community board, three representative seats for local politicians, and its current president, Donald Notice, also executive director of the West Harlem Group, an organization that provides affordable housing to local residents. However the WHLDC has not formally released the names of any of its members.
In April, Notice told Spectator that they hope to have a revamped WHLDC established and up-and-running by mid-July. Though Notice insisted that efforts at increasing accountability, like getting an office and phone number for the corporation, were on the way. Notice’s July deadline has come and gone and the LDC still doesn’t have a base of operations or mechanism for public accountability.
Notice told Spectator on Friday that the WHLDC is currently looking to set up an office somewhere in Manhattanville, but he could not provide additional information since they have not signed a lease.
In an interview with Spectator, CB9 chair Georgiette Morgan-Thomas said that the WHLDC needs to be more transparent with community members, and demanded monthly updates and progress reports from the WHLDC, as well as open information about the process to join its board.
“They have to have some place to operate,” Morgan-Thomas said. “If they don’t get situated, they’re not dealing with the situation at hand.”
The WHLDC has also been invited several times to give reports at the community board on its process, and though CB9 members Ted Kovaleff and former CB9 Chair Pat Jonesare part of the WHLDC, CB9 members say that they have not kept the board informed on the WHLDC’s progress.
At a recent meeting, CB9 member Walter South demanded that either Jones or Kovaleff present to the board, saying that “we haven’t heard from them in months.”
Former Community Board President Larry English also charged that the WHLDC lacks structure.
“There are no formal written procedures. How one submits a proposal and there has not been any broad advertising to the community ... as to how this process works.”
A Legal Transaction
But WHLDC President Notice said that the corporation is simply awaiting state approval to transition to a non-profit entity and currently lacks the legal authority to distribute the allocated funds.
According to Notice, the WHLDC itself has never had the authority to distribute the funds it recieved from Columbia, but was only designed to write the Community Benefits Agreement and act as a mediator during the negotiation process. Now that the CBA is complete, Notice maintains that the WHLDC must give way to a new organization, the West Harlem Development Corporation, that will be able to make those funding decisions—the same cause for the delay he cited last spring.
“Once the infrastructure is set up, once the state approves everything that has been submitted to them, that gives us the ability to accept applications and get the ball rolling,” Notice said, saying they should receive approval in no more than a month.
“It’s already at the office where it needs to be and in the review process,” he added.
However, despite Notice’s claims that the WHLDC must transition into the WHDC before it can begin receiving applications for programs and distributing funds, Columbia spokesperson Victoria Benitez says this is not mandatory.
“The CBA does not ‘require’ the LDC to go through an application with the state and transform itself into the WHDC, but it does allow the transition,” she said.
However, despite community members’ frustration, the LDC has begun distributing some of its money. Kovaleff, a WHLDC board member, announced at a recent CB9 meeting that the WHLDC provided $300,000 for the Summer Youth Employment Program to fund around 200 jobs for residents living in Community Board District 9. WHLDC member Jones said that there have been preliminary meetings with organizations operating in West Harlem and various city departments looking to get funding from the WHLDC. But Jones insisted that these projects can’t happen overnight.
“Right now, they’re looking for a multi-year commitment of seven years, a million dollars each,” she said. “It entails many months of discussion.”
In April, Notice told Spectator that WHLDC should be ready to distribute funds by mid-July. But last week, Notice said he could not provide a specific timeline for proposals, saying that CBA funds should be available for distribution soon.
“By the end of the year, we should be up and running,” he said. “Fully set up, the state application approved, the office in place and the website in place.”
Notice also said they are searching for a new executive director for the WHLDC, another commitment he had pledged to fulfill by last July.
An Advisory Role for CU
Though the University is not responsible for how the community benefits money is distributed, they do act in an advisory capacity for the WHLDC.
The University remains committed to fulfilling their obligations to the community, University spokesperson Benitez said.
“In accordance with the CBA, Columbia has contributed $3.55 million to the benefits fund to date,” Benitez said. “In addition, the University has provided $10 million to the City for the Affordable Housing fund.”
Congressional candidate Morgan said he hopes that the University will actively advise the WHLDC on the distribution of funds.
“Columbia University has made good on their promise to put the money up,” Morgan said, commending them for agreeing to the CBA. “I’m asking them to stand with us and say that we have a problem and that we need to address that problem to ensure that the money gets to the right places as intended by the University.”
In the meantime, community members said they hope to become more involved with WHLDC’s decisions as they unfold.
“What I propose is that we will have a meeting [with the WHLDC] for those board members who are interested,” said Morgan-Thomas. “I will contact the [West Harlem] LDC and set up a meeting where we can actually discuss some of these issues at length.” Morgan-Thomas also suggested increasing legal oversight for the WHLDC. “We probably need to look at some of our attorneys here on the board ... to be on the WHLDC and some other board members, so that we might make sure that we are properly represented,” she said.
Morgan proposed a more radical approach, saying that he would not hesitate to take legal action if the WHLDC does not act soon.
“No one wants to go to court and no one has to go to court,” Morgan said. “We simply challenge them to make changes to get things moving again.”
Morgan added that he is frustrated and confused by the WHLDC’s inaction.
“What I’m asking for is not rocket science,” Morgan said. “We’ve had three-and-a-half years. Put up a website. Tell us who your board is. Tell us how they were appointed and what their qualifications are.”
Miles Johnson contributed reporting.