Columbia’s Manhattanville expansion—and the approval process that made it possible—is a point of contention in the competitive race for Manhattan borough president.
Former CB1 chair Julie Menin, CC ’89, has criticized her three opponents in Tuesday’s Democratic primary—all members of the City Council—for voting to approve a rezoning plan that paved the way for the expansion in December 2007.
Council members Robert Jackson, Jessica Lappin, and Gale Brewer all voted in favor of the plan, which was based on Columbia’s signing of a memorandum of understanding that outlined promises to the community, including $150 million in benefits.
Manhattanville is a prime example of the city’s reckless development, Menin said, accusing the City Council of approving rezoning proposals with little regard for enforcing benefits. The method used by Columbia and other developers—a Community Benefits Agreement, or CBA—is flawed, she said.
“Community Benefits Agreements are simply not enforceable,” she said in an interview, citing a report from the City Bar Association.
She joins a chorus of critics who have said that the benefits have been dispersed to community members too slowly. While the West Harlem Development Corporation, the organization in charge of allocating those funds, has awarded about $3 million so far, Menin said that wasn’t enough.
“For only $3 million out of $150 million to go out to the community, it’s not acceptable,” she said. “It’s been many years. We really need to ensure that the community receives that funding.”
Jackson, whose support for the plan in 2007 was instrumental in its passage in the council because he represented the area, offered a full-throated defense of the project.
“They’ve given out millions of dollars in grants to help improve the community,” Jackson said of the WHDC in an interview. “If people expect immediate results, they’re unrealistic.”
Brewer, despite voting for the Manhattanville rezoning in 2007, said in a statement that the plan she approved should have included stronger enforcement mechanisms.
The plan “would have benefited from a restrictive declaration that would have required that the promises made to the community had the force of law,” she said. In future large development projects, including a proposed rezoning in Midtown East, she said restrictive declarations should be used.
Lappin did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
Instead of using CBAs, Menin has proposed a master plan for the borough that would give specific criteria—open space, public school seats, and affordable housing—that she would use to evaluate proposed developments before making her recommendation.
“We in New York are one of the few major American cities that does not have a master plan,” she said.
Brewer criticized that approach as “one-size-fits-all” and said it would take too much time.
“Community-based planning, instead of top-down planning, will work far better, deliver the results that communities actually need and want, and do it sooner and more efficiently than other approaches,” Brewer said. She emphasized “working with community boards and neighborhoods to ensure that any new development meets community needs.”
Unlike Menin, Jackson said that CBAs should be used more often in development disputes.
“Some of these things you cannot ask for in the land use process—you want it outside the land use process,” in a CBA, he said.
Land use debates like that over Manhattanville are a key role for borough presidents, who make recommendations on all zoning changes in their borough.
The candidates’ get-out-the-vote campaigns will play a big role in what is expected to be a relatively low-turnout race.
Jackson will have organizational support from volunteers from the United Federation of Teachers, the city’s teachers union.
Menin will be supported by volunteers from the 15 Manhattan Democratic clubs who have endorsed her campaign—more than any other candidate.
“We have that institutional, grassroots support from clubs across Manhattan,” she said.
Brewer, who has been boosted by an endorsement from the New York Times, said she would have “more than 800 volunteers and coordinators who will be working nonstop” from Sunday night through the closing of the polls at 9 p.m. on Tuesday.