More affordable housing, a new public school, plentiful jobs for local residents: These were among the perks Columbia offered to the West Harlem community to offset the impact of its Manhattanville campus expansion and make good on its promise that the neighborhood makeover would be for the better.
These promises were codified in a so-called community benefits agreement, or CBA, which was signed in May 2009. But since then, the group tasked with overseeing it has fallen into disarray, jeopardizing the benefits that the CBA was supposed to guarantee. It has no headquarters, no contact information, and no tax-exempt status, and even some local officials are in the dark about its operations.
The University reports that it has already paid $1.5 million into a fund controlled by the West Harlem Local Development Corporation, an ad hoc group of local representatives and politicians that was formed in 2006 to negotiate the terms of the CBA with Columbia officials on the community’s behalf. So far, the LDC has not distributed any of the money to the projects specified in the agreement, though members say they are close to establishing a new organization to administer the funds.
In other words, for nearly two years, while all eyes have been on the legal battle surrounding the state’s use of eminent domain to turn private properties over to the University, another battle has fallen through the cracks: the fight to secure the $150 million in benefits that Columbia promised to the community.
If carried out in full, the community benefits agreement will be worth $150 million. Of that total, $74 million will fund specific projects agreed upon by the University and the LDC during the CBA negotiation process. The remaining $76 million is unencumbered, meaning the LDC can distribute it as it sees fit.
Of the $74 million in earmarked funds, $20 million will go toward affordable housing, and $4 million toward offsetting the cost of legal services for tenants. $30 million will help fund a new public school, and $20 million is designated for “in-kind benefits,” which would allow community access to certain University facilities.
The majority of these benefits are intended to ease the economic impact of the project and to address widespread concerns about gentrification. Like Harlem as a whole, Manhattanville is known for its diversity and its working-class roots, and critics of the expansion argue that the project will increase property values and the overall cost of living beyond the means of many current residents.
These fears are not without merit. In 2009, a full 25 percent of households within ZIP code 10027, which covers most of Manhattanville, had yearly incomes of less than $10,000, and more than half had incomes under $35,000, according to the real estate website, CLRSearch. And, as property values inevitably rise, the project will also require the demolition of about 135 existing housing units, many of them rent-controlled, according to the General Project Plan for the expansion.
The CBA is meant to mitigate problems including decreased affordable housing, but by how much, no one knows for sure. In addition to its $20 million pledged for new housing, Columbia has promised not to privatize the Grant Houses or Manhattanville Houses, two existing public housing complexes in the expansion area.
In addition to helping low-income residents in the short term, the CBA includes funding for initiatives to address the root causes of pervasive problems, such as unemployment, in the long term. Among these is the Teachers College-affiliated Demonstration Community Public School, which should open by the end of 2015 if the timeline given in the CBA holds.
The CBA provides few concrete details on this particular project, describing it broadly as “a high-performing neighborhood NYCDOE [Department of Education] public school … that will support family development and be a community school in the sense that it will associate other services such as after-school programming, community educational programming, and a professional development hub.”
Columbia has also promised $20 million in “in-kind benefits”—namely, public access to unspecified “existing CU facilities, services, and amenities” until 2045, or until the market value of the benefits reaches $20 million, whichever comes first.
In theory, this should allow Manhattanville residents to take advantage of the University’s academic and recreational resources, thus fulfilling the promise that the community would benefit from having an expanded research university in their backyard. In practice, though, it is unclear exactly which resources will be made available, to whom they will be made available, or what impact they will have.
As for the $76 million in unencumbered funds, it is up to the LDC to decide where they will go, and there is no indication of when or how it will do so. LDC member Pat Jones, the former chair of Community Board 9, says only, “Appropriate processes are in place to make determinations of what charitable purposes funds should be used for.”
The CBA requires the University to pay the promised funds in four-month installments over the course of 16 years. In the 21 months since the agreement was signed, Columbia has paid $1.5 million into a benefits fund administered by the LDC. It has also paid half of its $20 million commitment for affordable housing into a fund controlled by the city. While it was mentioned in the CBA, this particular benefit was negotiated earlier with Borough President Scott Stringer, not with the LDC.
A community benefits agreement is a contract in which a developer promises certain perks to offset the impact of construction, and the community representatives with whom it negotiates agree to support the developer’s project in return.
In theory, the CBA negotiation process should account for a full spectrum of local interests, and the final product should be readily enforceable. But because the process lacks standardized criteria and takes place with little governmental oversight, critics say it tends to produce agreements that exclude parts of the community and cannot be enforced.
The Manhattanville CBA process began in 2006 with the establishment of the LDC. Initially, the group consisted of 13 neighborhood residents and representatives for seven elected officials, with the latter serving in a non-voting, advisory role only. Community Board 9 selected the members to represent various constituencies, such as tenants, business owners, and supporters of the arts. Over the next three years, the LDC negotiated with University officials and drafted an agreement, and in May 2009, it voted to approve the final CBA.
But it was never that simple. The negotiations were tense from the beginning, with some members alleging that the process was skewed in Columbia’s favor, and these tensions escalated into outright hostility when the elected officials’ representatives were given votes on the board.
“The idea was that we would have representatives from the politicians, but they would be advisers and not have any voting power—it would be a community-based organization, and it should primarily function to benefit the community,” says Walter South, a member of Community Board 9 who was involved in the establishment of the LDC. “But … [Congressman Charles] Rangel said if he didn’t have a vote, he was going to kill it, so they caved and gave them a vote. But by them all voting in a bloc, they were able to almost manipulate what the organization was all about.”
Other members, including Susan Russell, chief of staff for New York City Council member Robert Jackson, argued the opposite: that the elected officials served to broaden the scope of the constituencies represented by the LDC.
Infighting reached a crisis point at the end of 2007, when five of the LDC members most critical of Columbia—Tuck-It-Away Self-Storage owner Nick Sprayregen, who is best known for his unsuccessful lawsuit against the use of eminent domain in Manhattanville; Tom DeMott and Joan Levine, members of the local activist group Coalition to Preserve Community; Earl Kooperkamp, a CPC member and pastor at St. Mary’s Episcopal Church on 126th Street; and resident Luisa Henriquez—resigned in protest, calling the negotiations “rigged.”
The controversy did not end when the LDC approved the CBA in May 2009. Just days beforehand, the executive committee of Community Board 9 had voted unanimously to reject the agreement, deeming its contents insufficient and questioning how it would be enforced. The board’s decision was nonbinding, but served as a recommendation that its two representatives on the LDC—Vicky Gholson and then-chair Pat Jones—vote “no” on the final ballot.
Many critics of the CBA cited the community board’s opposition as evidence that the agreement did not represent a full spectrum of interests. But the LDC approved the agreement with 15 yeas, two nays, and three abstentions, and this result raised questions about whether the LDC or CB9 was better qualified to represent the community.
Critics also condemned what they saw as a lack of transparency in the process.
“I tried one time to go to one of their meetings, and they threatened to arrest me if I didn’t leave. That’s how democratic they were,” South says. “I think most of the community has been closed out of what’s theoretically happening.”
Local activists raised similar complaints when they were barred from the building during the LDC vote. Then-LDC Vice President Donald Notice, who is now president of the organization, defended the decision to make the vote private, telling the protesters that they had been too unruly at previous meetings. But this did not placate those who felt they had been excluded from the whole process.
Nearly a year later, in March 2010, the New York City Bar Association released a report that criticized the CBA negotiation process—not only as it played out in Manhattanville, but the process itself. The report argued that ad hoc groups like the LDC are not always representative of the communities on whose behalf they are negotiating, and that CBAs may be difficult to enforce because these groups usually disband after approving an agreement and because there are no formal standards governing the process.
In Manhattanville, true to the Bar Association’s warnings, the LDC has very little accountability. It has no headquarters and no phone number, and a spokeswoman for the Internal Revenue Service says the IRS revoked the group’s tax-exempt status “for failing to file a yearly information return for three consecutive years.” She cannot say exactly when it was revoked, but the New York Post reported the same information in May 2010, indicating that the group has been operating without 501(c)(3) status for at least nine months.
This could potentially jeopardize the entire CBA, because without tax-exempt status, the LDC cannot dispense any of the money it receives from Columbia.
When asked whether he thought the CBA was being well enforced, South laughs and responds, “‘Well?’ I don’t think it’s being enforced at all.”
He adds, “I find it amazing how inept they are, and you can quote me on that.”
Jones, however, says the LDC was only tasked with negotiating the CBA, not enforcing it, and that a new organization—the West Harlem Development Corporation, or WHDC—will be created to oversee enforcement.
“The work that’s being done now … will be toward the application for 501(c)(3) status for the development corporation,” she says. “The consultants have been working for several months and we had been anticipating that all of this stuff would have been filed by now, but it seems like we’re probably a couple weeks away.”
Notice gave a longer timeline, saying the WHDC should be established by “the middle of spring.”
Asked why the LDC’s 501(c)(3) status was revoked, Jones and Notice say the group never applied for tax exemption because it wasn’t supposed to oversee enforcement.
“Right now, the money that Columbia puts in for the community benefits agreement goes into the Fund for the City of New York, which acts as a fiscal agent for the LDC,” Notice says. “They have 501(c)(3) status, but the LDC itself never intended to have it, and we don’t have it. It wouldn’t have been revoked because we never applied for it. It was never intended for the LDC to carry on the function of implementation of the community benefits agreement.”
IRS records, however, indicate that the LDC was once tax-exempt, and South says, “I got the tax-exempt status for them when they were incorporated.”
Currently, “No money is going directly to the LDC,” Notice says. “It’s going for the community benefits agreement, but we don’t have a fiscal organization set up yet. We are working aggressively trying to get that set up. We’ve worked through the whole summer. We are behind schedule on it, but we have worked vigorously trying to get it set up.”
He adds, “Right now we cannot do it [distribute money] because there are no operation procedures.” But once the WHDC is incorporated with tax-exempt status, he says, “We can hit the ground running and start running programs.”
CB9 members “were told that they [the LDC] were reorganizing, and we were told they had a small board of directors, and we were told that CB9 would have two seats [in the new organization],” South says. “But being told something and seeing something real are two different things.”
Another common allegation has been of a lack of transparency throughout the process.
“The WHLDC has literally not held a public meeting since the CBA was passed in January 2008 and formally signed in 2009,” DeMott says in an email. “There is no implementation pace; there are only secrets, control, and manipulation—all of which shield Columbia quite well.”
Community Board 9 has pushed for stronger enforcement of the CBA, and chair Larry English says he believes the LDC will have its affairs in order soon.
“It is no secret that the community has not been happy about the slow pace that the LDC has taken to organize,” English says in an email. “However, I have spoken with the LDC and have been assured that they will have a new entity in place in the next several weeks. I have expressed that it is important for the LDC to move forward with its mission as quickly as possible and with total transparency.”
Former LDC President Julio Batista, who resigned last year for reasons that were not made public, did not respond to requests for comment.
But it takes two to tango, and the other party is Columbia. Spokeswoman Victoria Benitez says in a statement that the University “has diligently fulfilled its responsibilities under the agreement and worked cooperatively with the WHLDC.”
Columbia promised to give local residents and minorities priority in hiring for project-related jobs. So far, Benitez says that 68 percent of contracts, worth a total of $19 million, have been given to “minority, women, or locally-owned firms,” and that between August 2008 and September 2010, 66 percent of construction work hours were done by minority, women, or local workers. She did not break down the total into individual percentages for minorities, women, and locals.
But it is not just about hiring local residents for construction jobs. The CBA also calls for training programs that would enable unskilled workers to get better positions in the long term.
“The real job training programs in this beginning stage that were envisioned as part of the CBA and which might begin to address Harlem’s unemployment rate—well over 50 percent for black males—are instead supplanted by Columbia’s evictions of the small businesses and landowners and the loss of jobs,” DeMott says.
Another key component of the CBA, the new school, has also made uncertain progress.
“The Demonstration Public School, I think, is getting way too little attention,” says Ben Totushek, a student in the joint General Studies-School of International and Public Affairs program and a member of the Student Coalition on Expansion and Gentrification, which has worked closely with the Coalition to Preserve Community. “This is small in the context of the project or even the CBA, but it’s one thing that actually does help the local neighborhood.”
Totushek says that, according to his discussions with University officials as a member of the Student Coalition on Expansion and Gentrification, Teachers College is conducting a study of the current educational conditions in the neighborhood.
“I honestly do feel like TC is moving forward in good faith,” he says. “The problem seems to be with the new chancellor of public schools. This new person is having trouble providing Columbia with an actual space.”
Teachers College President Susan Fuhrman did not respond to a request for comment.
According to the language of the CBA, if University officials determine that building a school is unfeasible, they can legally transfer that portion of their financial commitment to the LDC’s unencumbered benefits fund—a fund that cannot be distributed to the community so long as the LDC remains without tax-exempt status.
While some negligence is clearly apparent, Jones emphasizes that the LDC—or its presumptive successor, the WHDC—is not responsible for enforcing every item in the CBA.
“Some of the things that are set forth in the Community Benefits Agreement are obligations that Columbia is bound by under the restrictive declaration that was signed with the city of New York, as well as the General Project Plan, which was signed by the state of New York,” she says. “The CBA clearly says that all community benefits included in the CBA that are provided for in the governing documents shall be governed solely by the governing documents, enforceable solely by the state or local government authorities.”
While many of the benefits stipulated by the restrictive declaration and the General Project Plan are restated in the CBA, they actually predate it and are separate both legally and financially. These items “do not come out of the funds that Columbia would be making to the Development Corporation pursuant to the CBA,” Jones says.
As the LDC struggles to reshape itself and community members seek nonexistent transparency and accountability, Benitez says Columbia’s Office of Government and Community Affairs “is in regular contact with members of the WHLDC and other community leaders.”
But there is still no clear indication of where the LDC is going or whether the WHDC, if established as Jones assured, will do what members insist it will. And given the bitterly fought negotiation process, the still-pervasive belief that the CBA does not do enough, and critics’ deep distrust of Columbia’s and the LDC’s intentions, success or failure will likely be an all-or-nothing affair. If even one promise fails, it could destroy the credibility of the entire agreement for critics.
“I have met numerous times with the management team of Columbia’s Manhattanville project and can honestly say that they have been honest and forthcoming and are making a genuine effort to ensure that the construction process is positive for northern Manhattan,” English writes in an email.
But, he adds, “Columbia has to recognize that … it is viewed, all too often, as placing its interest ahead of the greater community. … The university has to realize that taking 17 acres on the island of Manhattan is the equivalent of seizing a small city. In doing so I believe it assumed greater obligation to community than just being a good neighbor.”
Regardless, the success of the CBA—and in turn the quality of life for Manhattanville residents for decades to come—will most likely hinge on local advocates’ willingness to keep constant pressure on it, and groups like the Coalition to Preserve Community seem more than happy to do so.
“The [expansion] project was presented as, ‘It’s going to help the community because of the nature of the institution,’” Totushek says. “Everyone wants to see that be true.”