Group Handling $150M in Columbia Cash for Harlem Should be Disbanded, Says Community Board
By Jeff Mays
HARLEM — The group that oversees the $150 million community benefits agreement that's part of Columbia University's expansion into West Harlem should disband because it's not fulfilling its mission, members of Community Board 9 said.
With no headquarters, no meeting schedule and no disbursement of funds for neighborhood projects over the past two years, some members of the board said they have lost all confidence in the West Harlem Local Development Corporation, calling it an "embarrassment."
The West Harlem LDC also voted earlier this week to reincorporate itself as a 501 (c)3 nonprofit to be called the West Harlem Development Corporation.
The group elected an initial board of directors who will eventually hold an annual meeting to elect a full board. Once that is done, the West Harlem LDC will transfer all of its assets and rights regarding the community benefits agreement to the new organization.
A high-ranking member of the community board who asked to remain anonymous said the move was not well-publicized and only added to concerns about the transparency of the group managing the benefits agreement.
"There is a sense in the community board to walk away from the LDC because it is dysfunctional and can never be repaired with the way it is configured and with the people involved," the board member said.
"We need to see some concrete effort by the LDC that the people running it know what they are doing to make it a sustainable organization able to carry out its role in the community benefits agreement," said a high-ranking member of the board. "Right now, we have no confidence that the people at LDC have that capability."
Donald Notice, president of the West Harlem LDC, did not return calls or emails for comment.
Sen. Bill Perkins resigned his seat on the West Harlem LDC in September because he was concerned that the group had yet to take any action and lacked transparency and public accountability.
"I'm concerned as to whether or not there will be a real fulfillment of the commitment that was negotiated," Perkins said. "We thought it was better to step back and have them become accountable. Rather than be a part of it and try to defend it, I thought it was important that we expressed some concern about it ourselves."
Tom DeMott from the Coalition to Preserve Community, which opposes the Columbia expansion, resigned from the West Harlem LDC in 2007 because of the same issues.
"There has been no report about this reconfiguring and there has not been a report to the community in three years by the LDC," DeMott said. "Whatever is going on now and in the last three years indicates that only a complete starting from ground zero would be the way to get value out of the community benefits agreement."
The group formed in 2006 to negotiate the community benefits agreement with Columbia University as it planned to expand its Manhattanville campus.
In the agreement, $76 million would be given in cash for the West Harlem LDC to disburse. Columbia has also agreed to $30 million for construction of a new K-8 school in conjunction with Teachers College, $20 million for an affordable housing fund and $20 million in in-kind benefits such as facility use. There were also agreement to hiring mandates for local and minority firms.
Thus far, Columbia had paid out $1.5 million into the benefits fund, said Victoria Benitez, a spokeswoman for the university. Another $10 million has been paid to the city for affordable housing. Columbia says it has also awarded more than $19 million — or 68 percent — of the project area contracts to minority, women or locally-owned firms and has provided "advice and guidance" to the West Harlem LDC.
“Since the community benefits agreement with the West Harlem Local Development Corporation was formally adopted 19 months ago, the University has diligently fulfilled its responsibilities under the agreement and worked cooperatively with the WHLDC," Benitez said in a statement.
But the slow pace of implementation in the community, combined with the lack of information, has left many angry.
"One of my plans is to have a hearing and have The West Harlem LDC be responsive to the community. We need them to hear from the community," said Perkins. "If there's good news to report, great. If there's not so good news, then we need to come up with a fix."