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3 Years Later, Uptown Groups Still Waiting for Funds Promised by Columbia

By Nigel Chiwaya | June 16, 2014 7:48am
  Columbia University promised $300,000 to Parks or a community group in 2011. The money has yet to be doled out.
Columbia University Grant Money Undistributed
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INWOOD — A large ginkgo tree sits on top of a hill in Isham Park, above Isham Alley and Broadway. On the south side of the tree, the grass is well-maintained and the shrubs are carefully pruned. But on the north side, the lawn is unmowed and strewn with weeds and broken branches, as if a landscaper stopped mid-job with the ginkgo tree as the dividing line.

Volunteers from Bruce's Garden have maintained the south side of the tree for more than two decades. To clean up the north side, maintained by the city Parks Department, volunteers from the Isham Park Restoration Project sought a $25,000 grant from the Inwood nonprofit Conservancy North

But they might never receive the money.

Conservancy North has been vying for years for control of $300,000 Columbia University promised in April 2011 for community uses along the uptown waterfront — though the institution did not name any specific organization as a recipient.

As part of the deal, negotiated by elected officials and the university, Columbia agreed to a grant pledge of $100,000 a year for three years in exchange for permission to build a university sports center along the water.

But three years after the signing of what's come to be known as the Baker Field Agreement, Columbia has not allocated the funds and locals say their elected officials aren't standing up for uptown park space.

The Baker Field Agreement, which can be viewed here, was intended to be signed by Columbia and a community organization that represented Inwood. But a second party was never named, leaving a blank line on the top of the document.

Columbia has followed through on several parts of the agreement, opening the 40,000-square-foot Muscota Marsh park earlier this year and making 3,000 football game tickets available annually to residents and community groups.

Additionally, the university has allowed access to the track around its football stadium and has given out 32 summer camp and sports camp scholarships to northern Manhattan children.

But community groups are tired of waiting for the $300,000 the neighborhood was promised. The funds could "help support the next High Line — the next big idea that hopefully allows other community groups to do things," Conservancy North president Roger Meyer said at a Community Board 12 meeting in December.

IPRP founder J.A. Reynolds, 90, said he's nearly given up on getting funds to upgrade the park he's cared for since 1970.

"Nobody thinks we're going to get the money," he said.

A Columbia spokesman said the university is still committed to delivering the funds — to the Parks Department — and is waiting on an agreement with the agency.

"Upon receipt of instructions from Parks, we will make the payment as instructed," the spokesman said. "Columbia remains committed to continuing to work with the local community to provide long-term enjoyment of Muscota Marsh and Columbia's athletic facilities by both local residents and the University."

Columbia did not answer questions about why a second party to the Baker Field Agreement was never named, and a Parks Department spokesman said the agency is still figuring out with the university how to best distribute the money.

"Parks is working with Columbia University and the area's elected officials to determine the best means of achieving the goals expressed during community meetings of increasing waterway access and recreation, while expanding environmental education and enforcement," the spokesman said, not responding to a question about when locals can expect the money to be put to use.

Conservancy North had the support of former Councilman Robert Jackson, who praised the group in a 2012 email to DNAinfo New York, saying his office had worked with the nonprofit to "help ensure that the community partnership agreement reached with Columbia University is implemented with the integrity and transparency that the community surrounding the Baker Field project deserves."

Meyer, the Conservancy North president, said that if the organization received the money it would set up a grant program to provide funds to community groups in Inwood. Speaking to DNAinfo last week, Meyer said he had thought the group had the support of City Councilman Ydanis Rodriguez and state Sen. Adriano Espaillat, who both sit on the organization's board.

But when Meyer checked in with Columbia about the money this spring, he was told the funds would head to the Parks Department unless elected officials advised otherwise.

"You just got done telling us you wanted to see the money go to the community groups," Meyer said last week about Columbia.

Rodriguez's office did not respond to an inquiry about the Baker Field funds, and Espaillat's representative said an announcement would be made in July  which follows the conclusion of his Congressional primary battle with Rep. Charles Rangel.

Inwood resident Aaron Scott, who works with Reynolds to maintain Bruce's Garden and sections of Isham Park, said he was bewildered that residents still needed to fight for the money committed to them.

"All we're trying to do is make this side look like that side," he said as he gestured from the messy side of the gingko tree to the neat side.