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Black Architects Say Columbia Shut Them Out of $6.3 Billion Harlem Campus

By Jeff Mays | December 18, 2012 7:05am | Updated on December 18, 2012 4:29pm

HARLEM — They've worked with world-famous architectural firms such as I.M. Pei & Partners and designed projects for the Durst Organization that cost millions of dollars. They have the highest certifications in the American Institute of Architects.

But Arch527, a loosely organized group of African-American Harlem architects, claims that when its members went to Columbia University looking for work as part of a $6.3 billion campus expansion into West Harlem, they were offered only small projects such as moving a reception desk a few feet.

"It's like training for the theater and someone offers you a part in your daughter's school play. It's insulting work," explained architect Zevilla Jackson Preston, who said she was asked by the university to submit a bid to move the desk.

"This is a $6.3 billion project in our community, and we are not getting to participate," said another architect, Mark Barksdale.

Columbia is expanding onto 17 acres of land from West 129th to West 133rd streets, between Broadway and 12th Avenue. The first phase of the project is scheduled to be completed by 2015. Later phases won't be done until 2030.

In exchange for permission to build, the university signed a community benefits agreement that calls for it to apply affirmative action guidelines that require 25 percent participation by minorities, women and local businesses.

The agreement also set a goal that 35 percent of non-construction contracts go to  minority-, women- and locally owned outfits, and that large contracts be broken into pieces so that smaller contractors can compete.

Tanya Pope, executive director of construction business services for Columbia University, wrote in a Nov. 13 email to a member of Arch527 that the community benefits agreement did not require the college to hire minorities for anything but construction work.

"The (community benefit agreement) does not have goals for professional services," Pope wrote in the email, which was obtained by DNAinfo.com New York. "The work we are doing with MWL (minority, women and local) architects is at our discretion and outside the requirements of the (community benefit agreement).

"There is a very limited amount of work available for design professionals at the university and those opportunities are small and relate to the Morningside campus," she added. "Our intent is not to create unrealistic expectations."

Critics have long complained that Columbia has not lived up to the promises of the $150 million community benefits agreement, including objections it has left African-American architects out in the cold.

"They are used to dealing with janitorial services and low-level construction jobs, but if you are a professional with services to offer, you are invisible in plain sight," said another Arch527 architect, Kevin Barnes.

The university did not release a full list of architects working on the Manhattanville site.

But Columbia University spokeswoman Victoria Benitez said there had been a concerted effort to employ minorities, women and local workers.

"After a careful review process, qualifying firms are offered an opportunity to competitively bid on right-sized projects. Additionally, we encourage larger architectural firms to subcontract with smaller (minority, women and local) firms and we seek majority firms with (minority, women and local) architects as members of those firms," Benitez said via email.

"While we know that every project is not a fit for every business, we believe it is important to reach out and try to learn more about those firms that might have the expertise and scale for university projects," Benitez added.

The university did release a list of the black- and women-owned businesses it reported hiring for the project. These include The Switzer Group, a 100-percent minority-owned firm; the Davis Brody Bond Architects and Planners, the former firm of noted African-American architect Max Bond; and Victor Body-Lawson Architects and Richard Scofidio of Diller Scofidio + Renfro, which has an office in Harlem.

Bond, a former professor and chairman of Columbia’s Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation, died in February 2009. He was respected in the industry for his work and his efforts to grow the number of African-American architects. University officials said Floyd Gillis, who is African-American, is now the primary architect on the company's behalf for the Manhattanville project.

The Switzer Group did a gut renovation of the Studebaker Building in Manhattanville. Victor Body-Lawson Architects and Richard Scofidio are designing the Manhattanville Business School.

But Barksdale said the university is not being honest when it includes these firms among black-owned or Harlem architects.

While Switzer Group owner Lou Switzer is African-American, the firm is not an architecture firm but an interior-design firm, Barksdale said. Davis Brody Bond no longer has an African-American principal. And neither Switzer Group nor Davis Brody Bond have offices in Harlem, Barksdale added.

Victor Body-Lawson Architects was brought in as a sub-contractor, he said.

Richard Franklin of Franklin Associates is a former associate partner at Davis Brody Bond who served as an architectural consultant for the group's work on the 9/11 Memorial Museum. He said the problems facing African-American architects are not new and are due in part to the politics involved in landing large contracts.

African-American owned firms and architects are often told they are too small or don't have enough experience, Franklin said. There is also a lack of people to enforce efforts at increasing minority participation, he said.

"I'm not sure Columbia has placed enough emphasis on adding African-American firms from the community to do substantive work that expands the exposure of that firm," Franklin said.

One of the reasons Arch527 formed was so that it could have the scale and experience necessary to bid on university projects, organizers said.

"We knew we would have a better chance to get work on the Manhattanville project as a group, but Columbia University said they weren't going to accept the group," Barksdale said.

Larry English, a member of Community Board 9 who served as chairman and was a supporter of the campus expansion, said Columbia has failed in its obligation to hire minority architects and other professional services providers. English, a lawyer, said he believes the community benefits agreement's minority hiring goals clearly cover black architects.

"Local and minority architects have not been given a fair opportunity to work on that project," English said.

He blamed the West Harlem Local Development Corporation, the group formed to enforce the community benefits agreements, for neglecting its responsibilities. The WHLDC is still under investigation by the state Attorney General's office after it was revealed that it had spent more on consultants than programming and had, until this summer, failed to secure an office or executive director.

"The WHLDC has been too busy dealing with its own internal issues to make sure Columbia is living up to the community benefits agreement," English said.

Kofi Boateng, head of the WHLDC, said a group was recently hired to monitor and audit Columbia's hiring practices.

English also blamed local politicians for not taking Columbia to task.

State Sen. Bill Perkins is one of the few politicians who has taken action on behalf of black architects, English said.

Perkins wrote a letter to Columbia University President Lee Bollinger Sept. 27, complaining that "engaging a few minority laborers, contractors and construction managers does not adequately meet the terms of the commitment you made to your community.

"Primarily it seems that those the university has employed locally are low-skilled workers and that their compensation represents the tiniest fraction of the contracts you plan to dispense," he wrote.

Perkins told DNAinfo.com New York that he's setting up a meeting with Arch527 and the university, adding he's hopeful that the group will get work on the Manhattanville project.

"Columbia is expressing an interest in being inclusive," he said, "but we need to find out why they are falling short."