By Daniel Amzallag
PUBLISHED NOVEMBER 29, 2007
Three members of the West Harlem Local Development Corporation announced their resignation Wednesday night, citing a lack of progress and corruption among local elected officials.
The resignation of Tom DeMott, CC ’80, Nick Sprayregen, and Luisa Henriquez—who have all been outspoken activists against Columbia’s proposed Manhattanville expansion—from the LDC, a non-profit organization created to develop a community benefits agreement with Columbia, comes days after a City Planning Commission decision approving the expansion’s rezoning plan. The plan must now be approved by the New York City Council, as part of the city’s Uniform Land Use Review Procedure.
“I feel that I cannot be part of a group that is negotiating with Columbia in a way that does not truly represent the wishes of those whom we represent,” said Sprayregen, who is also the largest private property owner after Columbia in the expansion footprint. “We have tried from the inside to steer things right, but we have been unable to do so. Now perhaps from the outside we can draw more attention to how corrupt this has become.”
Susan Russell, an officer of the LDC and chief of staff for City Council member Robert Jackson, D-West Harlem, expressed surprise and disappointment with the resignations. “They’re trying to make us look bad to make their point, but the fact is this local development corporation is a very excellent and hardworking body. We’re completing our mission to so many people,” she said.
“People always have different opinions about what’s in the best interests of the community, but for them to be disparaging this body ... is very unfortunate, and they are using this for their own political ends,” she added.
Henriquez, a resident of the expansion zone, cited a lack of transparency in the LDC as the reason for her resignation. “They are showing one thing in the meeting, we see one thing, and we hear other things,” she said. “They’re supposed to make meetings with the public, make a forum, and let the community know what’s going on. They haven’t done that, and they’re supposed to.”
Russell, who led an effort to oust Sprayregen from the board this summer, defended the practice of involving a limited number of people in negotiations. “It’s not like people are trying to exclude others, but there has to be a certain level of practicality there,” she said. “Everyone on that board is absolutely dedicated to this community, and I can say that without hesitation.”
DeMott, of the Coalition to Preserve Community, and Sprayregen pointed to problems they described with elected officials who serve on the LDC. Politicians have been working to “streamline” approval of rezoning regardless of effects to the community, DeMott said. “They were basically more interested in being friends of Columbia and big developers than they were in truly representing the community,” Sprayregen said.
Many of the elected officials on the board have conflicts of interest with the LDC’s objectives, Sprayregen said. He pointed to Jackson, whom Russell represents on the LDC, who as a council member has decision-making power over ULURP. “He’s serving two masters. You just can’t do it. It’s not right, it’s not ethical, and it doesn’t make sense,” Sprayregen said. Sprayregen also cited conflicts of interest concerning Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer, who in September endorsed Columbia’s plan after the University committed $20 million toward affordable housing and $11.25 million for the upkeep of the West Harlem Waterfront Park.
But the LDC consulted the City Council, the city’s conflict of interest board, and the counsels of numerous politicians before forming, and was declared appropriate because of its advisory function, Russell said. “We’ve done all the right things, we’ve taken all the appropriate steps. We’re about following rules, it’s what we do,” she said.
DeMott said he now aims to lobby the City Council to reject Columbia’s expansion plan in addition to urging Columbia donors not to give funds for the expansion. “We are very firm and clear in our conviction that we’re going to stop this plan where it comes. We’ll be out in front of the bulldozers, but before that happens, we will make sure that those who are thinking of contributing to this expansion plan will have second thoughts,” he said.
Columbia spokeswoman La-Verna Fountain declined to comment.
“We’re working hard. We really need to stay focused on our work,” Russell said. “I don’t believe that I in my work or the rest of the board for that matter can be distracted [by the resignations] in whatever we’re trying to accomplish.”
Daniel Amzallag can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.