Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Columbia Expansion Gets Uglier

Runnin' Scared
Columbia Expansion Gets Uglier
Three board members resigned last week in a sign the fight is only getting nastier
by Graham Rayman
December 4th, 2007 7:16 PM

The sweaty scrum over Columbia University's plan to expand into West Harlem got a little rougher last week, when three board members of the local development corporation abruptly resigned in protest.

Local activist Tom DeMott, local businessman Nick Sprayregan, and resident Luisa Henriquez pulled out of the 25-member board of the West Harlem Local Development Corporation last week, claiming the process is "rigged."

But one of their antagonists, Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer, was not unhappy to see the trio resign, calling them "obstructionist."

"Good riddance," Stringer tells the Voice. "The best thing they did was they resigned from the LDC. I applaud them for giving the community a fighting chance."

The West Harlem LDC was formed as a tool to work out a deal between the city and Columbia that would bring some kind of tangible benefit to a neighborhood about to be turned on its ear by the massive project.

Under the plan, Columbia wants to build a multibillion-dollar complex—including a big research lab and teaching facilities—that will total roughly 6.8 million square feet over the next 25 years, running along Broadway from 129th Street to 133rd Street. The city planning commission has signed off on it, leaving only the City Council to do likewise before the piledrivers get the green light to start pounding away.

But the act of falling on one's sword for a cause is so unfamiliar to today's fair-to-middlin' crop of city politicians that they must have scratched their collective heads at the move.

So why did this particular trio opt for the door? DeMott, a local activist with the Coalition to Preserve Community, says that a power grab by Manhattan Borough President Stringer, local councilman Robert Jackson and other pols forced his hand.

"When you're not told about meetings, or not allowed to participate in negotiations, what conclusion can you reach other than you're just being used as window-dressing?" DeMott says.

DeMott singles out Stringer for reaching what he describes as a secret agreement with Columbia. "He really pulled the rug out from under us," DeMott says. "He undercut our negotiating position, and did it all on the sly."

Nellie Bailey of the Harlem Tenants Council, another opponent of the project, called the Stringer deal "somewhat odd and suspect."

Stringer issued a press release in late September that said the agreement included "commitments" from Columbia to create a $20 million housing fund and $11 million in local park improvements over 25 years.

Stringer says his work and that of other local politicians actually kept the process from stagnating and enabled neighborhood residents to get something out of the university in exchange for backing the project. "I honestly believe we have worked to do the right thing here," Stringer says.

A message left with Councilman Jackson's office on Friday had yet to be returned.

Other city officials also view the resignations with skepticism. "These are folks who want to cut a deal," says one.

But State Senator Bill Perkins says the dispute is a sign of the residents' deep unease over the direction of discussions between the city and Columbia: "I think that they are very concerned about the integrity of the process, and rightly so."

Luis Tejada, a community activist with the Mirabal Sisters Cultural and Community Center, says he was nominated to serve on the LDC twice, but that his nomination was rejected both times by the representatives of the elected officials on the panel. "The community is 43 percent Latino, and only two of the 25 members of the board are Hispanic," he adds.

Tamara Gayer, a community-board member and artist, says the resignations are "very telling about how people feel in general about this project . . . . At some point, some people didn't want to feel like they [were] complicit in what was happening."

send a letter to the editor
J. Reyes-Montblanc on Fri Dec 7, 2007, 12:39, 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.
Respectfully yours
J. Reyes-Montblanc
Community Board 9 Manhattan
565 West 125th Street

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