Tuesday, February 17, 2004

Columbia Spectator
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Putting Pen To Paper
Demands for a Community Benefits Agreement on Expansion Grow
By Erin Durkin Spectator Staff Writer
Issue date: 2/18/05 Section: >Manhattanville Expansion" href="http://www.columbiaspectator.com/news/2005/02/18/NewsManhattanvilleExpansion/">News>>Manhattanville Expansion

If Columbia's Manhattanville expansion goes forward as planned, many people in the affected community want to make sure there's something in it for them.

Their preferred method of doing so is a Community Benefits Agreement-a formal contract between a developer and representatives of the surrounding community designed to ensure that the community shares the benefits of any proposed development.

Last September, Community Board 9 included a provision requiring a CBA in any future rezoning. The provision was part of a 197-A plan, a large scale plan drafted by the board that will serve as a guide for any development in the neighborhood. The document calls for land use or zoning changes in West Harlem to be accompanied by a CBA with the developer. The CBA would "help assure that the environment is protected, that housing opportunities for low, moderate and middle income residents are protected and expanded and that high road jobs and locally owned businesses will be created and existing businesses protected."

Similar documents in the past have included provisions for everything from scholarship funds to community rooms. Columbia has not firmly committed to signing a CBA, but University officials have indicated that they are willing to consider it as a possibility.

Senior Executive Vice President Robert Kasdin said that he wants "commitments made in connection with rezoning to be clear and unambiguous to all members of the community. When we and the appropriate leaders sit down, we will reach an agreement that's in ours and the community's best interest."

"Vagueness is in no one's interest," he added.

Formal negotiations toward a CBA have not begun, but talks over the shape such negotiations may take are underway.
"We take seriously our responsibility to work with the community and are willing to discuss long term benefits that are aligned with the University's mission as an educational institution. Whether or not that results in some sort of formal binding agreement is still undecided. However, we are not opposed to the idea," said Liz Golden, Columbia's director of operations, planning and special projects.
While the University has never entered into a formal CBA before, it has made other commitments related to previous development plans that have since seen mixed results.
The administration agreed to provide space for the New York Public Library in conjunction with the construction of its Broadway dormitory in 2000. And when Columbia built its Audubon Research Building in Washington Heights in 1990, they agreed to open a community health center near the site; a center focusing on mental health needs is now operated there by the Association of Progressive Dominicans. The University also agreed to provide jobs and job training for local residents and to establish a scholarship fund.

University officials maintain that they have lived up to their commitments at Audubon.
However, Mark Levine, who is currently a member of Community Board 12 but was not at the time the agreements were made, said he is dissatisfied with the number of local jobs and job training created. He also said that of the $750,000 scholarship fund that Columbia agreed to establish, $600,000 remains unspent.

"They agreed to things on paper 15 years ago that they didn't live up to," Levine said, adding that he hopes Columbia will agree to a formal, legally binding CBA for future phases of development at the Audubon facility.

Sandra Harris, director of community affairs at Columbia University Medical Center, said that the University "worked very closely with the [community] board on our commitment to hire local residents." She said that promises on local hiring were fulfilled, noting that eight to nine percent of construction jobs at the facility went to local residents, and 45 percent went to minorities.

The scholarship fund, which pays medical school expenses for a group of Malcolm X Scholars, is intended to be an endowment that will perpetually generate money for scholarships. Depleting the money in the fund could cause it to collapse.

Harris added that the medical center prides itself on its close relationship with neighbors and with CB12, and that close communications will continue in conjunction with any future development.

Though formal negotiations are not underway for a Manhattanville CBA, many community members have been vocal about the provisions they would like to see in such an agreement.

CB9's 197-A plan calls for a portion of revenue gained by rezoning to be invested in a community trust fund, which members hope will be a part of any CBA. The fund would pay for benefits including affordable housing, local job creation and skill development, environmental protection, and educational, cultural, and recreational facilities.

While they agree that these are the main areas of need that should be covered in any CBA, some activists and organizations have tacked on demands of their own.

"Whatever's not covered by the 197-A that the community needs should be covered by the CBA," said Tom Kappner, a member of the Coalition to Preserve Community.

Community activist and city council candidate Cynthia Doty said that jobs created by the Manhattanville expansion should be for local residents, and Columbia should commit to job training programs to compensate for disparities in skill levels. Without a firm commitment to job training to put local residents on a career track, Doty said, "high paying, skilled jobs will go to white people from outside the area."

Kappner said that a CBA should also include commitments from Columbia to favor locally owned businesses in renting out commercial space and to allow independent, outside supervision of any biotech facility built in Manhattanville.

Affordable housing commitments would be insufficient if they simply created housing accessible to people making less than the median income of New York City as a whole; instead, Doty said, commitments should reflect the lower median income of the specific local area. She also called for minority contractor hiring.

University officials did not speculate on specific provisions that may be included in any CBA, calling such speculation premature at this stage in the process.

Community activists stressed that a CBA would be meaningless unless it included an enforcement mechanism. Proposals include a law passed by the City Council, a contractual agreement enforceable by lawsuit, financial penalties assessed by the city for violations, and making building permits contingent upon compliance.

For many in the community, the negotiations leading up to an agreement are nearly as important as the content of the agreement itself.

"If the process is wrong, I'm almost certain the content will be wrong as well," Kappner said. He expressed concerns that the University may engage in non-publicized negotiations with hand-picked representatives of the community or just come up with an agreement unilaterally.
The CPC endorsed the recommendations of the 197-A plan and pointed to CB9 as the appropriate partner for negotiations with Columbia towards a CBA.

While acknowledging that "some people have personal agendas," Doty described the 197-A as a unifying force for the community and said that CBA negotiations are "the opportunity for the community board to be empowered."

CB9 Chairman Jordi Reyes-Montblanc agreed that the community board was the appropriate negotiating partner and said the board would step up as soon as Columbia indicated a readiness for formal negotiations. Until then, he said it would be inappropriate to speculate on the specific provisions that CB9 will seek to have included in an agreement.

"We are at an impasse," he said, indicating that he is waiting for Columbia to make the next move.
"We are engaging in ongoing discussions with community leaders, the city, and elected officials to determine the best process. We believe that benefits to the community are critically important and hope that there will be a process in place soon," Golden said.

Activists are guardedly optimistic about getting what they want out of a CBA.

"To be a community organizer ... one has to be optimistic," said Nellie Bailey, head of the Harlem Tenants Council. "My optimism doesn't come from faith that Columbia wants to do the right thing, [but] under pressure they can be made to do the right thing."