Monday, October 02, 2006

Development Group Meets Community - M'Ville Residents Press LDC to Stand Ground

Columbia Spectator
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Development Group Meets Community
M'Ville Residents Press LDC to Stand Ground
By Erin Durkin
Issue date: 10/2/06 Section: News

More than 200 people met at a community forum Saturday to acquaint themselves with the group that will determine what benefits that neighborhood gets out of Columbia's proposed Manhattanville expansion.

The Local Development Corporation, which had its first meetings this summer, will work toward a community benefits agreement with Columbia in conjunction with the University's plan to build a new campus in the Manhattanville section of West Harlem.

The corporation is intended to present a united front for the community in its negotiations with Columbia, but the composition and goals of the group have caused some tension among neighborhood residents and activists. Some have questioned its transparency and wondered whether its members were selected fairly and are representative of the community.

LDC members attempted to address those concerns Saturday. "We expect the standards you set will be quite high," said Pat Jones, the LDC's president and Community Board 9 representative. "By no means are we saying that everything that happened in the past and the method in which it happened is perfect. We are learning from our mistakes."

She opened the meeting with a detailed explanation of how each member of the group was selected. The LDC is composed of representatives from different constituent groups-such as public housing tenants and commercial property owners-who are likely to be impacted by the expansion.

Jones said that in cases where recognized organizations for particular constituent groups existed, CB9 asked those groups to select representatives for the LDC. Where no such organization existed, CB9 sent invitation letters based on its mailing list and convened a meeting of members of that constituency, asking attendees to vote for an LDC representative.

She also said that at least once a month, the LDC would open a portion of its weekly meeting to the public.Attendees challenged the LDC to secure benefits from Columbia without allowing the community benefits agreement to become a payoff in exchange for which the University is allowed to proceed with its expansion however it wants.

"I think most people in this community actually welcome Columbia. It's not that they're coming in, it's how they're coming in that we object to," said Walter South, who is a member of CB9 but spoke in his personal capacity.

He suggested that Columbia be asked to offer public use of its facilities. "Have you ever tried to get into Avery library? You better have about 6 forms of ID," he said, "Why can't we use the gymnasiums? Why can't we use the libraries?"

Attorney Norman Siegel, who represents business owners in the expansion zone who have refused to sell to Columbia, commended the group for agreeing to open some of their meetings, but asked them to go further.

"I would strongly suggest that all the members commit themselves to transparency by opening the meetings totally," he said. "Let the people see you, let the people hear you, and the cynicism will evaporate."

Philip van Buren, a lawyer representing auto mechanics who rent space in a building in the expansion zone bought last year by Columbia, told the panel, "This CBA serves Columbia's interests as well. Your negotiating ability lies exclusively in your ability to say no ... You can slow this process down as much as you want, again by your ability to say no."

Congressman Charlie Rangel (D-Harlem), Borough President Scott Stringer, Assemblymen Danny O'Donnell (D-Morningside Heights) and Keith Wright (D-West Harlem), and City Councilman Robert Jackson (D-Washington Heights) all appeared at the meeting."

The city wants to do what's good for the city ... Columbia has to do what's best for them," Rangel said. "The elected officials stand 100 percent behind the community."

Some attendees were skeptical. "They shouldn't just come and give a speech and tell us they want to listen to us but as soon as they're finished, they walk out of the room," Siegel said.

Jackson was the only elected official to stay for the six-hour duration of the meeting.

Columbia had no role in forming the LDC, and had been waiting for its completion before beginning community benefits negotiations. "It's not appropriate for Columbia to choose with whom we negotiate. That's why we waited for a year and a half," Senior Executive Vice President Robert Kasdin said Friday, "We will negotiate with whomever the elected leaders and CB9 says represents the community. You can't always pick who you negotiate with. But we think we will be able to make a strong case across the city that Columbia's expansion is important to the future of the city."

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