Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Benefits Agreement to Decide Funds Allocations in Manhattanville

Benefits Agreement to Decide Funds Allocations in Manhattanville
By Daniel Amzallag
As neighborhood criticism of the West Harlem Local Development Corporation subsides, members of the corporation say they are four months into developing a full community-benefits agreement.

The LDC was formed as a group of community representatives to negotiate and detail a benefits agreement with Columbia that could help to mitigate and compensate for the effects of its Manhattanville expansion. A “memorandum of understanding” between the LDC and the University outlining some general agreements was signed on Dec. 19, the morning the City Council passed a rezoning required for the expansion.

The memorandum, worth $150 million in total, promises $76 million from the University over the next 12 years toward programs related to education, health care, and job training. It includes $24 million Columbia had already announced that it would spend on affordable housing, and an additional $20 million toward “inclined services” intended for quality-of-life improvement. The memorandum also commits Teachers College, a Columbia-affiliated institution, to build a community-based public demonstration school worth an estimated $30 million.

The LDC has been meeting weekly—both privately and with University officials—since January to negotiate the specifics of these funds, such as which jobs will be created and how much will be offered to offset environmental impacts, LDC officer Susan Russell said.

“We’re all working very hard. I think we’re doing good work, and we’re looking for a superior outcome that will provide tremendous opportunities for the West Harlem community and a good relationship with the University,” said Russell, who is also chief of staff for Councilman Robert Jackson (D-Manhattanville and Washington Heights).

In addition, the city has pledged $150 million—unlinked to the University’s commitment—to be channeled by the city’s Department of Housing Preservation and Development to affordable housing in West Harlem.

Despite what it sees as recent strides, the LDC generated a great deal of controversy in the months immediately preceding and following the City Council vote. Five members resigned from the LDC last year, citing alleged misrepresentation and a “rigged process.”

Some have raised concerns about the nature of the memorandum of understanding, worrying that it is non-binding and too weak. Community Board 9 member Walter South said that those who resigned “are not stupid—they could see the handwriting on the wall. They could see that nothing was going to happen, and nothing has happened.”

Protests from several members of CB9 were frequently brought to the board’s monthly meetings, but since January the issue has not been voiced. “In general the anger that’s in the community about this whole business [the MOU] is what is driving the lack of any interest in what’s going on,” South said.

Russell said she could not specify a timeline for when the community benefits agreement would be finalized. “I don’t think it’s productive or makes any sense to say we hope to be done by ‘x’ or we hope to be done by ‘y.’ It will be done as soon as is practical,” she said.

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