Attendees Accuse Development Corp. of Ignoring Their Concerns
By Anna Phillips
Issue date: 3/28/07 Section: News
Of the 20 people who approached the microphone at the community forum of the West Harlem Local Development Corporation last night, few were forgiving in their criticisms of the board.
Composed of members representing different constituencies within the community, the LDC is the organization with which Columbia is negotiating a Community Benefits Agreement to accompany its proposed Manhattanville expansion. As negotiations have begun within the last several months, disapproval of the group and its negotiating tactics has mounted among some in the community. Residents, business owners, and activists have accused the LDC of lacking transparency, and they have denounced the group's decision not to mandate that Columbia renounce eminent domain as a precondition to negotiations.
Minutes before the LDC held its second community forum, members of the Coalition to Preserve Community gathered outside to protest the group. Of those protesters who held signs and shook tambourines, several were actually members of the LDC.
CPC member Tom Kappner blamed the group's perceived missteps on "politicians who engineered what amounted to a coup by forcing their way onto the board." Eight Harlem elected officials have representatives on the LDC.
Inside the forum, many stepped up to the microphones and filled three hours with accusations and criticism against Columbia and the LDC.
"We need to fight for principles, not crumbs," said Norman Siegel, attorney for the West Harlem Business Group, saying that if eminent domain remained on the table, the CBA would function as a buyout.
While attendees argued for more LDC meetings open to the public, Harlem resident Mario Mazzoni said, "I'm not concerned about getting more minutes to speak publicly if I'm not being heard."
Along with issues of being ignored, some audience members voiced concern about the demographic makeup of the LDC.
"I think Latinos are underrepresented on this committee," said Community Board 9 member Norma Ramos. Walter South, another CB9 member, expressed concern that few LDC members actually live in the Manhattanville.
Instead of answering questions or responding to the censure of the speakers, the members of the LDC sat behind a table in near silence.
After the forum, Susan Russell, LDC member and chief of staff to Councilman Robert Jackson, D-Washington Heights/West Harlem, defended the group. "These people are saying if the LDC doesn't take eminent domain off of the table, they refuse to negotiate with us on any other issue," she said. "We believe that it is not in the best interests of the community for that to be our starting negotiating position. There are 100,000 people in the community, and if 20 of those people stand up and say eminent domain is the most important issue, that doesn't necessarily make it so."
The forum also featured a series of updates during which LDC members informed those in attendance of the initiatives under consideration by each of its committees. While the LDC has only met to negotiate with Columbia three times, and at this point, nothing has been decided, members were able to discuss areas in which they would like Columbia to provide funding for programs, such as safe waste disposal, arts centers, and affordable housing.
John-Martin Green, the representative of arts and cultural organizations, spoke about integrating Columbia students into the Harlem arts scene, as well as creating and funding an arts school for middle and high school students. Following him, Julio Batista spoke about housing, Maritta Dunn addressed business and economic development, and Cecil Corbin-Mark, program director of WE ACT for Environmental Justice, spoke about the green initiatives and health standards the LDC is looking to incorporate into the benefits agreements.