Ji Hoon Ko, a Columbia College first-year, is currently in the planning phase of a project for the Roosevelt Institute. Ko, alongside Columbia College sophomore Maeve Flaherty and the Roosevelt Human Rights policy center that Flaherty directs, have been conducting research for the last two months in order to inform a campaign around the University’s obligations regarding affordable housing in Manhattanville and Morningside Heights. In tandem with his working group’s efforts and the 10th anniversary of the 2008 Community Benefits Agreement, he recently hosted a general body meeting for all of Roosevelt, in order to put the Manhattanville Expansion on the table.
At the meeting, he says, the group discussed questions like “What role should Columbia and universities in general play as prominent members in their local communities?”
One answer: A playground remodel. This is the sort of thing that you might remember faintly from your preteen years—the clean slide of glossy new monkey-bars, or maybe freshly painted lines on the asphalt. It probably didn’t matter to anyone besides you and your daily half-hour of recess glory—but at M.S. 514, this remodel is going to matter to people other than just the kids. After all, Columbia is paying for it.
That is, Columbia is legally obligated to put $500,000 towards remodeling this playground by the Declaration of Covenants and Restrictions, a 2011 contract between the University and the Empire State Development Corporation, a branch of the New York state government tasked with fostering economic development.
In a statement over email to The Eye, a University spokesperson stated the DCR “was a result of lengthy negotiations” between the University and ESD, and that it “reflects many of the terms, benefits and amenities set forth in the General Project Plan,” and “codifies the University’s commitments to the city and state in connection with the project,” both during and after construction.
It is the DCR which encapsulates best, in one document, the infrastructure of the expansion. Through the lens of the DCR, the public good becomes less of an abstract concept and more something that can be addressed in a series of hyper-specific sub-sub-sub-clauses. If we want to understand the nature of the expansion—how that infrastructure is and isn’t holding up, a decade down the line—as well as the ways in which the University is being held accountable, that’s in the DCR.
You may be wondering how a university gets from proposing an expansion to funding playground makeover plans in a decade. Here’s how it happens:
At many of the steps along that route, you’ll find the ESD. They’re the public agency that Columbia first approached to ask for help with the start of the expansion in 2001, and the agency that Columbia asked to use eminent domain, a practice of land seizure by the government for public use, as provisioned for in the United States Constitution. ESD finds that Manhattanville is blighted in 2008, which under New York state law, gives them the rights to seize that property. A series of court cases ensues, brought against ESD by tenants who refuse to budge, and the highest state court decides in ESD’s favor. Come 2011, the DCR between ESD and the University becomes the final keystone in the slew of contracts and memoranda that serve to design and govern the expansion.
If you’re familiar with the Manhattanville expansion and the CBA, in which Columbia committed to putting $150 million towards civic benefits via the West Harlem Development Corporation, you might think that something like the playground remodel would be in the CBA. But while the CBA has been given much of the student attention regarding legal obligations put on the University in the expansion—Ko, for instance, wasn’t familiar with the DCR—it isn’t the crux of those obligations.
If you’re a Columbia student today, you may not know that all of this escalated Columbia’s expansion from a local protest to a nationally-discussed legal kerfuffle. Eminent domain was used by ESD to seize land, not for a public project, but for private use, a justification established as acceptable by the controversial Supreme Court ruling Kelo v. New London in 2005. To justify seizing the land for Columbia’s use, ESD had to make the case that the expansion would ultimately provide a civic benefit: In the words of the final court ruling on the matter, that exercising their eminent domain power was “supported by a sufficient public use, benefit or purpose.”
This is a tricky concept. Education itself is a type of public good, but it wasn’t the whole justification. The General Project Plan, a 2008 document which the DCR makes enforceable, provisions a number of public goods: housing legal assistance, for instance, and publicly accessible open space. Other commitments, like the playground remodel and provisions for how directly displaced residents will be rehoused, are mitigation for what the 2007 Final Environmental Impact Statement deems “unavoidable adverse impacts”: that is, they directly address the negative consequences the Columbia expansion would have on the surrounding area.
The DCR is not short. Professor Leonard Wasserman remarks on this when I speak to him on the phone: “It’s very detailed,” is the first thing he says when I bring the contract up, “Very, very detailed.”
Wasserman, who graduated from Columbia College in 1968 and still lives on the Upper West Side today, is currently a part-time consultant at the New York City Economic Development Corporation and an adjunct professor at Brooklyn Law School. From 1985 to 2011, however, he served as the Chief of the Economic Development Division in the New York City Law Department, and during the last decade he spent in that position, he was involved in the coordination of the Columbia expansion.
The whole DCR, exhibits and all, comes in at 327 pages of legalese. (Take it from someone who’s been carrying a printed copy around in her backpack for three weeks.) This text is both astoundingly wide-ranging and impressively pedantic: It takes you from affirmative action in construction hiring to a Columbia-run Mobile Dental Center all in a few pages, but also spends several paragraphs describing boiler systems and fume hood heights. If the University wants to put a window in a building, there’s a clause for that too.
In part, the DCR’s sheer lengthiness is because the document has fundamentally different and broader goals than the CBA. The DCR, as Wasserman puts it, is about land use “requirements and conditions,” whereas the CBA is not. However, the DCR still functions as a benefits contract in its own way. Some highlights that aren’t included in the CBA: The University is required by the contract to, over time, donate a cumulative $20 million to the Harlem Community Development Corporation, a subsidiary of ESD, extending the financial benefits provided by the University to a space outside of West Harlem. The contract requires Columbia to run a “loan program to encourage ownership by faculty” of property located away from the area, in an effort to mitigate displacement. And it includes the playground provision, and stipulations about creating and maintaining public open space on the new campus.
CBAs, Professor Edward de Barbieri says, are “a mechanism to try to develop equity.” De Barbieri directs the Community Development Clinic at Albany Law School, and he speaks with me over the phone about his work. He raises, as an example, the proposed and subsequently cancelled Amazon expansion in Long Island City from this past year: The Memorandum of Understanding on that project, or the announcement that it was to go forward, “indicated government support,” he says, but didn’t indicate community or local support.
That’s where a CBA comes in; in Columbia’s case, the Manhattanville CBA is meant to codify an agreement between the University and the community. It’s important to note that the CBA is not an agreement with the government—it’s between Columbia and the WHDC, which is a nonprofit development corporation.
Laying out the tasks that Columbia needs to do as part of the expansion is one thing—but where do you make sure the University does it? The CBA isn’t monitored by the government in the way that the DCR is: The WHDC could sue if some part of it isn’t being followed through on. The DCR, however, is monitored jointly by ESD and the NYC Planning Commission, with additional third party reports delivered to ESD by management group Landair.
In other words, the DCR is the linchpin in making sure that Manhattanville happens how it’s supposed to: that the Final Environmental Impact Statement is addressed, that the GPP proceeds as planned, that a playground gets rebuilt, that certain fuels get used.
And if the University doesn’t follow any of this—if it fails to prove it has come through on a commitment, or Landair finds it has failed—there are pages and pages on what, exactly, is to be done. Certain sections are to be tracked by the NYC Planning Commission and others by ESD. There is a series of notifications that each agency is required to send Columbia, and if none of that fixes the issue, the University can be sued. The same can be said of the CBA, but the entity on the other end of that lawsuit threat here is the city or state government, rather than the WHDC.
“Obviously,” Ko says, “I think the Manhattanville issue is one that's very complex.” He understands, as a student, the University’s need to find space for academic work. “But at the same time as a community member, we have to ensure that we're undertaking the goals of the University in a way that's responsible when considering the effects on the greater community.”
If students are, as Ko and his Roosevelt group seem to suggest, interested in how to hold Columbia accountable as Manhattanville proceeds, the DCR is one place to look.
Enjoy leafing through our ninth issue!