Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Columbia expansion CBA

With Atlantic Yards and Yankee Stadium, New York City established a pretty bleak track record in coming up with CBAs that came anywhere near their Californian counterparts’ successes (like the Staples Center and LAX CBAs). Because of this, CBA supporters were hoping that an agreement concerning Columbia University’s expansion into West Harlem would provide a better model for future New York CBAs.

The project, in which Columbia will put up 16-18 new buildings, is estimated at about $6 billion and is likely to span about 20 years. The project is also expected to create about 6,000 jobs, and "transform a shabby enclave of auto-repair shops, warehouses and small manufacturing plants into a pedestrian-friendly environment with more open space, restaurants and shops." Columbia also argues that the expansion is necessary to its educational mission, as its now-cramped and spread out facilities do not allow it to be as competitive as universities such as Harvard and Princeton.

The city and Mayor Bloomberg have been especially supportive of Columbia's interest in creating a CBA, providing funds and technical assistance for the negotiating process. The process, in this case, has also been markedly different than the other New York CBAs from the start. Rather than being driven primarily by the developers or elected officials, County Board 9 authorized the creation of a local development corporation (LDC) to be composed of appointed community leaders representing a broad range of constituents. Public meetings began September, 2006 and continued on a weekly basis with working groups devoted to housing, business and economic development, employment, education, historic preservation, community facilities and social services, arts and culture, environmental stewardship, transportation, research and laboratory activities and green spaces.

Although the Community Board originally intended that the LDC would not include any elected officials, after the LDC’s first meeting it revised this choice. The decision to include city officials would prove to be detrimental to the process, however, as perceptions arose that they were not representing the true interests of the community and that they were inappropriately controlling negotiations. Moreover, Columbia did not have any representatives on the LDC and was not very involved with the negotiations.

The situation took a distinct turn for the worse in November 2007 when three members of the LDC resigned. They cited conflicts of interest among the elected officials on the board and complained that there was a lack of transparency in the negotiations. Tom DeMott, one of the resigning members and a representative of tenants groups, stated that negotiating sessions were held without his being informed of them, and Nick Sprayregen, the largest property owner in the project's footprint (who was almost kicked off the LDC in the summer), complained that the CBA was a “sell-out of the community…that represents something that is not what the community wants.” Two other members resigned shortly thereafter, claiming that there had been misrepresentations and secrecy. As a result of these resignations, the LDC was left with fifteen members, seven being elected officials.

Despite these troubles, a memorandum of understanding was completed in December 2007 just in time for the City Council to approve of the expansion plan and Columbia's request for rezoning. The agreement commits Columbia to providing $150 million in benefits, including $30 million for a university-run public school, $20 million of in-kind services, $20 million for affordable housing, and $4 million for legal aid. But the bulk of the money, $76 million, was set aside for as-yet undetermined community programs to be implemented over the next 12 years. The agreement has been described as “one-and-a-half non-legally binding pages,” and criticism has been directed at the LDC for rushing the CBA process and punting the specifics of the agreement to a later date.

It seems that the Columbia CBA negotiations were begun in good faith, with intentions to be as inclusive of divergent community interests as possible. Regardless of the LDC’s continuing pledges of support for community interests, though, by a number of accounts it has not succeeded in instilling much faith in its efforts among the community. The resignations and hastily drawn up agreement have not helped. Nor has the fact that the Columbia situation is mired in controversy about the use of eminent domain and the possibility of gentrification in the area. Columbia did agree last fall that it would not seek to evict any residents through the use of eminent domain, but some residents have expressed displeasure with the relocation provisions and it's still up in the air what will happen to local businesses. The prospect that eminent domain will be used at all has been viewed negatively by many in the neighborhood, including some who support the expansion, and a number of commentators have suggested that had the CBA talks been conducted more openly, eminent domain would have played a more important role.

Hopefully, Columbia will resolve the eminent domain issue with the few remaining business owners in the expansion area and the finalized CBA will deal with the as yet uncommitted $76 million in a manner that's satisfactory to most of the community.

The Columbia CBA memorandum can be viewed here.

The Columbia Spectator has produced a website with audio interviews, photos and an interactive map of the expansion footprint.

Update July 22, 2008: Whether or not the remaining holdouts will sell to Columbia is still up in the air, but ESDC has made a formal blight finding--laying the foundation for its use of eminent domain--so it seems fairly certain that the land acquisitions will proceed, voluntary or not. See here.