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CB9 Calls for Audit of Columbia's Promises to West Harlem Community

By Jeff Mays | March 22, 2013 1:30pm

HARLEM — Community Board 9 wants the state to investigate whether Columbia University is keeping its promises under the community benefits agreement it signed as part of a $6.3 billion campus expansion into West Harlem.

The board voted overwhelmingly — 30 to 0 with one abstention and three non-votes due to conflict of interest — to ask the Empire State Development Corporation to audit whether Columbia is meeting the goals it agreed to when signing a deal with the state and a $150 million community benefits agreement in exchange for permission to build the project.

The board believes Columbia has not met agreed-upon hiring goals.

"They are in breach of this agreement," said CB 9 member Larry English, who outlined in a presentation why the board felt Columbia University was not living up to its promises.

"A contract is a contract," he added.

In exchange for permission to expand onto 17 acres of land from West 129th Street to West 133rd Street, between Broadway and 12th Avenue, the university signed a community benefits agreement that requires 25 percent participation by minorities, women and local businesses for construction contracts.

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

Columbia University claims that it has met and even surpassed these goals.

According to statistics released by Columbia, from Aug. 1, 2008 through June 30, 2012, 51.8 percent of the total construction spending was paid to minority, women and local firms.

During the same period, the university also says that 67.2 percent of the total workforce hours worked under construction contracts and subcontracts were performed by minority, women and local workers.

“Columbia is proud to fulfill its commitments to the West Harlem community and all of the programming and partnerships we have to benefit people and organizations in upper Manhattan," Columbia University spokeswoman Victoria Benitez said in a statement.

However, both those figures do not include special construction services and related construction materials. That means that work currently going on to build the retaining wall for the first building to rise on the site, the Jerome L. Greene Science Center, is not included in those figures, officials said.

"This 51 percent looks good except that a big, juicy part of the money is what is missing," said CB9 member Arnold Boatner.

The university has said the work on the retaining wall is specialized work and is exempt from the hiring goals.

Columbia University has not responded to repeated requests by DNAinfo.com New York for documentation to confirm its hiring and spending claims.

Kofi Boateng, executive director of the West Harlem Development Corporation, said his group also has not seen documentation to confirm the university's numbers.

"I'm an accountant and I haven't seen what's behind these numbers," Boateng told CB 9.

The Empire State Development Corporation, which has hired a firm to monitor the general project agreement, says it is currently in negotiations with the university over the best format to receive data for analysis.

Benitez said that review is "very much a part of the agreed-to process between the University and the community.”

However, CB9 members say they highly doubt Columbia's figures are accurate. First, the fact that special construction services and related materials are not included in the university's figures cuts out a huge piece of the project, they said.

"Those numbers are embarrassing. It's insulting that Columbia University would put those numbers out," English said.

In December, DNAinfo.com New York reported on an email sent by Tanya Pope, executive director of construction business services for Columbia University, to a group of black architects who have been shut out of work on the campus expansion site.

Pope said that professional services like those offered by the architects were not part of the community benefits agreement and that university did not want to create "unrealistic expectations" about them being hired to work on the site.

"The [community benefit agreement] does not have goals for professional services," Pope wrote in the email. "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]."

English said the board believes that professional services are included in the community benefits agreement and the general project plan that Columbia signed with the state.

CB 9 Chair Georgiette Morgan-Thomas said she also doubts the university's hiring figures based on a trip she took to the site to meet construction workers there. Not many said they were from Harlem or even Manhattan, she said.

"We see minorities on that site but they are not from this community," said Morgan-Thomas.

Also of concern are the 40 engineering scholarships that the university promised to the community, said the board.

English said the board wants the Empire State Development Corporation to enforce the agreement or take legal action to seek damages.

"We are looking at all options," English said.

Columbia University has delivered on some of the goals in the agreement.

The West Harlem Development Corporation gave out its first $2 million in grants to area nonprofits Thursday. The money is part of $76 million in cash Columbia pledged for community investment.

Teachers College Community School, a project between the Department of Education and Teachers College that was promised in the community benefits agreement, settled into its permanent home in September.

"We want to ensure we are getting exactly what we are supposed to be getting as a community,"  Morgan-Thomas said.