Butts on Columbia Expansion: Politicians 'Polluted' Negotiations on Community Benefits
by Eliot Brown December 5, 2007
Municipal Art Society
At a panel discussion last night on development in the city, multiple community organizers and the Reverend Calvin Butts, pastor of Harlem’s Abyssinian Baptist Church, criticized the process of forming community benefits agreements (CBAs) in order to bolster public and governmental support for large development projects.
The tool seems to be a technique increasingly favored by developers of controversial projects, who negotiate with members of the community, agreeing to include in the CBAs provisions for things such as affordable housing and local jobs.
Panelists at the forum, which was organized by the Municipal Art Society and the Rockefeller Foundation and moderated by The Observer’s Matthew Schuerman, directed their harshest words about CBAs toward the process currently going on in West Harlem, where a board of elected officials and community members are hashing out a CBA with Columbia University. With Columbia exclusively talking with the board, known as the West Harlem Local Development Corporation, the debate has been essentially closed to the rest of the community, the panelists argued.
“It was removed from full control of the community, by people from the political sector getting involved,” said Ron Shiffman, a onetime city planning commissioner and former director of the Pratt Center for Community Development. "It was tantamount to zoning for sale,”
Reverend Butts joined in the criticism, saying he had met with Columbia about forming a CBA, only to have the university close the door on him in order to talk exclusively with the Local Development Corporation.
“We sent a plan that we thought covered all of the areas that you would want to cover, and immediately after that meeting—this is one of the real issues that I have—the representatives of Columbia cut off all communication. Not a word,” Mr. Butts said. “When the political establishment got involved, it polluted it.”
The solution, at least according to Messrs. Shiffman and Butts: have the city or state create policies around issues such as the inclusion of affordable housing and similar matters, taking them off the negotiating table for each individual development.
Last week, the Columbia CBA hit a bit of a bump in the road, as three members of the Local Development Corporation resigned in protest, saying they were being kept out of negotiations with the university.
The 21st century (not verified) says:
Why do people keep trying to strong-arm this project? Are they trying to get more money? Is greed their motive? Or is it jealousy of a successful university and misplaced class resentment? Or nostalgia and a destructive hope that nothing around them ever change?
Why should Harlem residents -- I won't say "the project's neighbors," because almost nobody lives in the area and the only businesses there are quasi-legal chopshops that leak carcinogens into the ground -- be able to hold Columbia ransom like this? Is it because it's a non-profit college and is therefore viewed as pliable? If it were some private developer, he'd just go and do his thing, and that'd be the end of it.
Columbia's project will create jobs and revive an embarrassing Third World deadzone in a way that would make any Rust Belt city would drool. What makes New Yorkers so selfish, or so unable to put things into perspective? Would people rather have decent-paying science, research and education jobs within walking distance -- or chopshops?
Opponents have no right to claim there's a community in the area, because there isn't. The university has waited years for the few remaining grannies to move out, rather than displace anyone.
What if New York were this opposed to progress in the 18th century? We'd all have cholera now because we'd still be living in squalor. There'd be no Empire State Building, no subway, and so on. What is it today that makes people think they have a right to use this kind of coercion on a landowner? (Columbia, after all, owns most of these buildings and has not used eminent domain and has shown no sign of doing so.)
It's like living amidst the secular Taliban. Luddites, if you please. Remember, what goes around comes around. If you kill development now, you'll live amidst autoparts dealers and groundwater laced with antifreeze for another 20 years. And as a non-profit university, the jobs Columbia offers the surrounding neighborhoods will be loaded with benefits, just as the school is already promising to build low-cost housing to the tune of $100 million (something it is in no way obliged to do). The Taliban, my friends.
December 06, 2007 1:48 AM
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Mary the Librarian (not verified) says:
Not going to use eminent domain? Columbia has paid the Empire State Development Corporation at least $300,000 beginning in 2004 to "consider the condemnation of portions of the Property not under Columbia Control and the transfer of title". A letter of agreement documenting this was obtained by the Columbia Spectator through a Freedom of Information Law request. Publicly Columbia keeps saying they hope they don't have to use it, but I think this agreement shows otherwise. It is also clearly stated in the environmental impact statements submitted to the city that they intend to use it. Besides the owners who don't want to sell, Columbia needs the state to condemn the property under the streets for the 7-story below-grade "bathtub."
And, since the threat of eminent domain, prevents owners from selling to anyone else at a decent price, all Columbia really has to do is threaten eminent domain. he owner of the Cotton Club doesn't want to sell. Two successful moving and storage companies don't want to sell. The owners of two gas stations don't want to sell. (It's not all chop-shops.)
There are buildings beautiful and historic enough to be landmarks that Columbia doesn't want landmarked and so they aren't. The city and state have said that the Studebaker Building, for example, is eligible to be a landmark. Although Columbia says they will leave it stand, they should commit by landmarking it. The City Council should have the guts to require it before they vote on the plan.
December 06, 2007 1:30 PM
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J. Reyes-Montblanc (not verified) says:
Although there may be good reason of concern about the presence of the local elected officals in the West Harlem LDC, there is no argument that these are the democratically elected representatives of the WestSide Harlem community to City, State and Federal governments and not some nefarious foreign interests.
As the incorporator of the West harlem LDC, from which I resigned on June 15th 2005, as soon as it was organized and had an itnital Board of Directors, I believe I am in a good position to comment on this article.
First of all, the inclusion of elected officals was always intended, however under the By-Laws I originally established they were to come on the Board in 2008 when we anticipated the ULURP process to be completed to avoid any possible conflict of interest I resigned as I felt that as Chairman of Community Board 9 Manhattan, I should not be involved in the negotiations of any CBA with any developer.
The intent of the LDC was to avoid individual powerful organizations taking over a public benefits process as has happened in other Districts. The creation of the LDC was crafted to include every WestSide Harlem indigenous community interest segment through a representative.
Interests outside West Harlem were deliberately neither considered nor invited, just as our district resident interests were never part of any negotiations for projects in other districts, interests residing in other Upper Manhattan districts have no room in ours.
West Harlem interests groups with a well established umbrella organization, the umbrella organizations were given LDC seats; other interests without umbrella organizations meetings were held where representatives of that segment were present and democratiocally elected their own representatives to seat on the LDC Board of Directors.
The faith community elected their own and Rev. Butts either took part or didn't. Abyssinian Development Corporation operates in Central Harlem and does a wonderful job but it does not operate in WestSide Harlem and as far as I know has no projects in West Harlem to date. I am told that Rev. Butts has no love for CB9M and that he has not had anything to do with usin over 20 years for whatever reasons, however I, personally, have great respect and admiration for his work in Central Harlem althoughwe have barely met.
The elected officals decided to claim their seats in July of 2005 and the LDC Board was expanded to 28, including the 9 elected. A good or bad decision was in fact made and we have to work with that regardless of our like or dislike.
As I have assidously avoided any interference or involvement with the LDC since my resignation, I have only received periodic reports from CB9M 2 reps when they make their report to the Execuitve Committee and General Board, I cannot comment on the effects of the elected officals presence in the negotiations and won't.
Rev. Butts discomfiture is understanble in view of CU's refusal to negotaite with him, but CB9M voted to grant the West Harlem LDC the responsiblility to negotiate, sign,administer and enforce any CBA negotiated with ANY developer including Columbia University and the University, the Mayor and elected officials agreed that the WHLDC was to be the only entity with its wide community representation to neogtiate a CBA.
Whatever CBA the LDC and CU reach will be presented to CB9M for approvalwhen finalized. CB9M will vote to approve or disapprove it or require further negotations.
Until the process takes its course the good, honest and deopendable and hard working members of the LDC deserve the opportunity to finish their efforts.
I deeply regret the recent resignation of 3 members but they acted according to their conscience, in the mean time the work of the LDC continues and I for one would love to see it finished, regardless of the criticism of thsoe who feel leftout, and those who left took their voices with themselves so they really have removed themselves from the effort by their own volition, their conttributions of talent and ideas will be missed.
J. Reyes-Montblanc Chairman Community Board 9 Manhattan 565 West 125th Street New York, NY 10027
December 6, 2007 4:15 PM