University administrators are under fire from a group of Harlem-based black architects that claims that Columbia unfairly shut its members out of a job on the Manhattanville campus because of their race, despite their high qualifications.
After receiving the go-ahead to construct the new campus in 2009, administrators signed the Community Benefits Agreement with neighborhood residents. The agreement—in addition to promising $76 million for economic development and community projects—mandated that 35 percent of all non-construction contracts go to minority-owned firms.
Administrators maintain that they are working toward that goal, but the architect’s group, Arch527, claims that minorities have not been given sufficient opportunities to participate in the expansion.
“It’s a not-so-subtle, insulting slap in face,” Zevilla Jackson Preston said. Preston, a member of Arch527, is a licensed architect with almost 20 years of experience. “The project administrators had a lot of nerve to tell us that they were flying architects down from Europe to work on the project when there were equally qualified Harlem architects right down the street.”
Although Arch527 architects did not receive contracts for larger projects on the Manhattanville campus, Kevin Barnes, another Arch527 member, said he was offered a variety of smaller projects, all of which were on sites smaller than 200 square feet.
Despite feeling snubbed, Barnes said he then submitted another proposal to renovate a Manhattanville storefront, but never heard back from administrators.
According to Preston, the pattern of offering these smaller projects began when Arch527 started collectively lobbying for Manhattanville contracts in 2011. After University administrators told a group of her colleagues that they would not participate in the expansion’s more lucrative projects, Preston said they were offered a number of smaller projects between 500 and 550 square feet.
“They offer a project on Broadway that is worth $20,000, which is a drop in the bucket for professional architects like us,” Preston said. “Even after we have offered to work collectively and pair up with architects already hired for the project, the administrators still turned us down.”
Both Barnes and Preston also accused Columbia of having them think they would be working collectively with other black architects, while secretly pitting them against one another.
Barnes said he was never told that only one architect would be selected for each smaller project, and called the hiring process exclusionary.
Columbia spokesperson Victoria Benitez said in an email that the University was building “robust commitments” with firms owned by minorities, women, and locals, which Columbia abbreviates to MWL.
Benitez pointed to the approximate $300 million that has gone toward MWL firms for construction, maintenance, and repair work over the last four fiscal years, and said that there had been no manipulative hiring tactics during the bidding process.
“Columbia has also made a concerted effort to reach out to MWL architects to ascertain their relevant experience and determine where there might be appropriate bidding opportunities in the future,” Benitez said. “After a careful review process, qualifying firms are offered an opportunity to competitively bid on right-sized projects.”
Benitez also said that Columbia encourages larger architectural firms to subcontract with smaller MWL firms, and that the University seeks out majority firms with MWL architects as members of those firms.
According to Benitez, Columbia offered contracts to a number of MWL firms, including the Switzer Group, a minority-owned firm that carried out a gut renovation of the Studebaker Building in Manhattanville, and Marin Nanca Architects, which has also worked on expansion projects in Manhattanville.
Benitez did not comment on the current percentage of non-construction contracts that Columbia has given to minority-owned firms.
Mark Barksdale, another Arch527 member, told DNAinfo in December that this list of firms was misleading, and dismissed the Switzer Group, an interior design firm, as irrelevant to the issue of architectural projects.
Barnes also said that he is still not convinced that Columbia is adhering to its CBA and reaching out to enough MWL firms.
Although Columbia invited Arch527 to submit bids for phase two of the renovation, which will take place in roughly a decade, Barnes maintains that the University discriminated against him and his colleagues.
“It makes no sense why Columbia would overlook us in favor of other architects with similar credentials,” he said. “This just proves that Columbia’s hiring policies are more exclusionary than inclusionary.”