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Columbia's Community Benefits Agreement Takes Inwood By Surprise

By Carla Zanoni | April 27, 2011 5:49pm

By Carla Zanoni

DNAinfo Reporter/Producer

INWOOD — Columbia University agreed on Tuesday to a community benefits agreement tied to the expansion of its Baker Field complex development, exactly three weeks after the City Council gave the green light for the project.

Councilman Robert Jackson said he received the signed agreement from Columbia president Lee Bollinger at 6 p.m. Tuesday.

"Some people are going to be happy, some people won't," he said. "But ultimately the agreement is good for Northern Manhattan."

News of the agreement came as a surprise to community advocates intimately involved in the negotiations as well as to at least one member of Jackson's staff, who stormed out of a pre-construction community meeting held by the university on Tuesday night after learning a working draft of the agreement had been signed by the school without her knowledge.

Columbia University is investing $50 million in its Baker Field complex, including a 47,000-square-foot sports building and waterfront public access.
Columbia University is investing $50 million in its Baker Field complex, including a 47,000-square-foot sports building and waterfront public access.
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Courtesy of Columbia University

Columbia officials did not respond to requests for comment regarding the signed agreement.

According to multiple copies of the latest draft agreement dated April 21 obtained by DNAinfo, which sources said is the version signed by the school, Columbia has agreed to a host of benefits for the Inwood community as a concession for building a 47,700-square-foot field house at 218th Street and Broadway without turning over the normally required 15 percent of the project's land for public use. (Instead, Columbia will set aside just 1.5 percent of its property for public use.)

Most notably, the school agreed to contribute $100,000 each year for three years to the Parks Department and a yet-to-be-created conservancy charged with support of Isham and Inwood Hill parks.

The university also agreed to provide 32 scholarships to local children for summer programs at Baker Field for the next seven years, provide community space at Baker Field, create a grade school "learning project in conjunction with the development of the Boathouse Marsh Project," and work to minimize traffic congestion related to sports complex usage.

Columbia has also touted a public access area on the waterfront there and a boathouse for non-motorized boats.

The school is also pursuing new methods to minimize sound pollution from the complex and has agreed to shut off its stadium lighting by 10:30 p.m. throughout the week.

The school agreed to incorporate pest management processes to minimize pest problems related to construction and to ensure that appropriate environmental testing and remediation is completed prior to and during construction of the Boathouse Marsh.

Demolition construction at the site began earlier this week and school officials said Tuesday that the work will move forward from 7 a.m. until 6 p.m., Monday through Friday until completed. Weekend construction will also be pursued on an as-needed basis.

Obie Bing, an Inwood resident and member of the Barack Obama Democratic Club of Upper Manhattan, said he was concerned that construction had started without air testing of contaminants and urged the university to do air monitoring moving forward.

"You want to be as careful as you can be," he said.

Inwood resident Roger Meyer said he was disappointed that the signed agreement presented by the school was in essence a draft version of the document and said final negotiations surrounding the agreement had not involved the community.

Moving forward, Meyer said he hoped to work with the university to ensure that the benefits fought for by groups like Advocates for Inwood Manhattan and elected officials would be enforced.

"One cannot underscore our surprise at this maneuver," he said. "There is no language that said this agreement was final."

In addition to concern about the terms of the agreement, the matter of who will act as a signatory for the community is still unresolved.

Columbia University has been accused of not holding up its part of the bargain at the site of its West Harlem expansion, with complaints surrounding inadequate employment opportunities tied to expansion and the downsizing of a promised community school.

The West Harlem Local Development Corporation, the group that formed in 2006 to negotiate the community benefits agreement with Columbia University as it planned to expand its Manhattanville campus, has also come under fire for mishandling the $150 million contributed by the school.

Meyer said he and others from the community are taking care to identify the best method to hold the university accountable to the agreements negotiated — be it an existing community-based organization or a newly formed nonprofit organization made up of a coalition of community groups — and hopes to have that settled within the next 30 days.

"The bottom line for us is that we want to have faith in the process," he said, "And we want faith that the institution is fulfilling its commitment as a community partner and that our elected officials are on board with that."