Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Community Benefits Specifics Remain Up in the Air

Community Benefits Specifics Remain Up in the Air
By Daniel Amzallag

The future of Manhattanville can be found on one-and-a-half non-legally binding pages.

Columbia agreed to provide a package of benefits and money to the local community in a document called a “Memorandum of Understanding” to mitigate and compensate for potential effects of its campus expansion.

In 2006, Community Board 9 formed the West Harlem Local Development Corporation , an independent organization composed of representatives from various facets of the community. The LDC, of which University officials and local politicians are a part, originally sought to devise a legally binding Community Benefits Agreement between Columbia and its neighbors.

But the morning before the unexpectedly early City Council vote on Manhattanville rezoning in December, the LDC created the less detailed, unbinding MOU rather than the CBA, which would have taken more time. Currently, the LDC is in the process of drafting a full CBA, according to Maritta Dunn , LDC officer and former CB9 chair.

The MOU commits $150 million total from the University though $76 million over 12 years to programs not yet determined, a community-based Pre-K-8 public demonstration school run by Teachers College valued at $30 million, $20 million toward “in-kind services,” $20 million toward affordable housing, and $4 million toward legal aid services.

“They worked on a timeline that they were forced into, and that should not have been the case because of course the end result of that is low-balling the amount of money,” CB9 member Norma Ramos said.

The MOU has given rise to fears that the University will not follow through with its promises. “If you want to get a chick in bed and she wants to get married, the best thing you can do is get an MOU because when you get up and you get a good look at her you can change your mind,” CB9 member Walter South said.

“The MOU is written very, very simply, but you would want to think in the best interests of all concern that you wouldn’t have that gap when you sit down to discuss other things, so I don’t think that we would have to hopefully go legally for anything,” Dunn said.

The LDC has faced long-term criticism of inadequate reporting to the community, misrepresentation, and inappropriate control by politicians whose representatives serve on the board. Since November, five members of the board have resigned in protest of these issues.

“How can you claim to be a voice of the community, and you never want to hear that voice, and you don’t feel accountable to that voice?” Ramos said.

But LDC members counter that the board’s dealings cannot be public while negotiating and that its members are frequently engaged in community discussion. “The bottom line is the people on the LDC are 110-percent committed to protecting the community that they represent,” Dunn said.



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