Ties That Bind

Published on March 25, 2015

It is not until a few seconds after the train leaves the elevated station on 125th Street that quiet finally sets in. Suddenly, it is clear how loud the subway is.

Manhattanville, the neighborhood just north of Columbia’s Morningside Heights campus, has been home to plenty of controversy over the past decade. It may be quiet after the train passes overhead, but with history in mind, the view of Columbia’s construction sites—and the new glass buildings set to open their doors in 2016—from 125th Street and Broadway seems anything but calm.

When Columbia announced in 2003 that it would expand in Manhattanville, the reaction from longtime residents of the neighborhood—which sits between the Hudson River and St. Nicholas Park between 122nd and 135th—was loud. Locals said that the expansion would weaken community-owned businesses and raise housing costs.

“When the new campus was proposed for 125th Street, there was a lot of panic uptown,” says New York City Council Member for District 7 Mark Levine, whose district includes Manhattanville. “Even before the first student or professor has been a resident up there, the effect on the community has been profound.”

A lengthy legal battle, which would stretch into 2010, followed. The battle centered on whether Columbia could gain the rights to the land to construct its new, state-of-the-art campus in a neighborhood that, then, hosted factories and warehouses, locally owned businesses, and public housing projects.

Despite the controversy and staunch opposition from neighbors, the local community board, and Columbia students and faculty members, the University ultimately won the right to expand uptown. And Columbia reached an agreement with the West Harlem Local Development Corporation, a local non-profit created for the purpose of distributing funds from Columbia to the community.

That agreement was the legally binding West Harlem Community Benefits Agreement, which was signed by University President Lee Bollinger and then-president Julio Batista of the WHLDC on May 18, 2009.

The CBA, fully 50 pages long, contains specific stipulations concerning Columbia’s hiring of minority-, women-, and locally owned (MWL) businesses, in addition to other specific benefits the University is mandated to provide to the residents of West Harlem, including targeted hiring recruitment for local residents, distribution of funds to local nonprofits, and funding for local housing projects.

Nearly six years after the CBA was signed, the controversy in the neighborhood may have quieted down as three of Manhattanville’s new buildings go up. But many of the same residents and activists who were initially opposed to the expansion have raised questions about whether Columbia has come through on the promises to which it agreed.

So has the University upheld its end of the bargain? Six years into the CBA, most Manhattanville businesspeople and community groups would say that it has, although some residents believe that Columbia continues to underserve the neighborhood.

A History of the CBA

Columbia was able to acquire the last properties necessary for the Manhattanville expansion in 2010 through a process called eminent domain. Eminent domain permitted Columbia to acquire property assessed to be “blighted” or “unusable” in exchange for market-rate payments given for the land possessed.

The Empire State Development Corporation—a quasi-government agency—approved the use of eminent domain in December 2008. ESDC justified its decision based on a study of blight in the neighborhood. ESDC determined Columbia’s expansion could boost Manhattanville, which the report said was marred by poor or critical building conditions, high rates of vacancy, and underdevelopment in the neighborhood.

But the neighborhood wasn’t willing to give up the land without a fight. In 2009, the New York State Supreme Court, Appellate Division, ruled that the Empire State Development Corporation’s attempts to use eminent domain violated the “social contract” and did not benefit the public good. This original ruling was then overturned by the New York State Court of Appeals in 2010, which allowed Columbia to purchase the remaining properties that refused to sell their land to the University.

Some small businesses in Manhattanville closed or were relocated as part of the project, including Ramon Diaz’s Floridita Restaurant, which moved from the site of the expansion to a nearby Columbia-owned building at 125th Street and 12th Avenue. Some businesses—including two nameless gas stations, which were owned by the Singh family— resisted selling their land to the University.

Some businesses in Manhattanville whose buildings are now owned by the University and are eventually slated to close remain open—for the time being—including the suburban-style McDonald’s next to the subway station on Broadway and El Mundo, a department store at Broadway between 133rd and 134th streets.

The gas stations and Nicholas Sprayregen’s Tuck-It-Away Storage were the two last holdout property owners who refused to sell to the University. In early 2009, Sprayregen and gas station owners Gurnam and Parminder Singh sued the ESDC.

During the legal proceedings, local activist groups such as the Coalition to Preserve Community held rallies and meetings against the project for years, including protests outside Sprayregen’s warehouse.

In 2008, the West Harlem Development Corporation worked with local politicians and the University to develop a means of reparations for the effect of Columbia’s expansion on the community. And then came the CBA.

The CBA, a 50-page document, promises a total of $150 million to the community, to be dispersed into four main funds. The WHDC is in charge of distributing a “Benefits Fund” of $76 million to nonprofits in the form of grants. Teachers College Community School, a public demonstration school founded in 2011, received $30 million in funding from the CBA. To help members of the community obtain affordable housing, $24 million is promised. And the CBA promises $20 million in access to Columbia facilities and services, with the types of access and services to be offered by Columbia and approved by WHDC.

According to Julian Gross, a San Francisco-based attorney who specializes in community benefits agreements, CBAs are legally binding when well-written.

Still, he says he has never heard of litigation resulting from such an agreement. And, he says, some CBAs are more likely to succeed than others.

“Usually, the preconditions for a good CBA are that the public decision-makers care what the community thinks about the project,” Gross says. “You also need an organized and broad coalition of legitimate community advocates representing a range of interests and asking for community benefits that benefit the neighborhood or community broadly, rather than financially benefiting their particular groups.”

Gross stresses the importance of any such agreement being signed before a project is approved.

“I did not think the Columbia CBA was credible when it was first negotiated, because it left key terms to be finalized after the project was already approved,” he says.

The organizations that the housing fund would pay to encourage the preservation and development of affordable housing in the neighborhood, for example, were left to be clarified by local politicians and representatives from the community and Columbia.

Similarly, the types of access to facilities that Columbia would offer, and what it would consider the market rate value of that access, was undetermined when the CBA was signed. The procedure laid out in the CBA mandates that Columbia offer services and WHDC approve the services offered. If WHDC does not approve services worth the full $20 million by 2045, Columbia does not have to offer any more.

Some of the original activists who protested Columbia’s expansion into West Harlem maintain that the CBA does not contain enough benefits for the community.

“We put a tremendous amount of work into what the community really needed, in terms of services to seniors, services for youth and children, services around housing,” Earl Kooperkamp, who formerly served as the reverend at St. Mary’s Episcopal Church on West 126th Street before moving to Vermont in May 2012, says. “Most of them were just entirely ignored.”

To Kooperkamp, Columbia is not obligated to give the community enough money as part of the CBA.

“It was very much nickel-and-dimed,” he says of the CBA. “I think that, probably, the project should have been at a minimum four to five times larger than it was, and probably more like ten times the actual dollar amount that was agreed to.”

“It’s very much to the University’s advantage, very much to the advantage of elites in New York,” Kooperkamp says. “It’s the CBA, but it’s a Columbia Benefits Agreement, not a Community Benefits Agreement.”

But despite the criticism surrounding the CBA’s conception, the document has inarguably affected Columbia’s expansion into Manhattanville.

Hiring and Jobs

“CU expects the Project to generate new local jobs and economic opportunities for the benefit of the Local Community. This will require the training, referral and hiring of Local Residents, minorities and women and the participation of Local businesses in the Project.”

—Section IV.A of the Community Benefits Agreement

As part of the CBA, Columbia pledged to hire certain percentages of minority-, women-, and locally owned companies on the construction site.

According to the document, Columbia will “use good faith efforts” to hire 50 percent MWL-owned companies over the course of the project.

For Phase I of construction––which includes the Jerome L. Greene Science Center, the Lenfest Center for the Arts, and a new Business Center, among other buildings––Columbia has a goal of 35 percent of the total dollar value of subcontracts to MWL companies. Forty percent of the workers on the site employed by the University’s contractors and subcontractors should be MWL-qualified, according to the CBA.

“The implementation is always the hard part,” Dusty Kirk, a partner at Reed Smith in Pittsburgh, says. “Sometimes, if you don’t hit the numbers, that’s because there aren’t those workers in the community.”

As part of the agreement, the University also created the Construction Trades Certificate Mentorship Program, a free program to train local small businesses in construction. Companies that trained small businesses as part of the program included BNY Mellon, National Grid, Goldman Sachs, and Con Edison.

Debra Romain, a graduate of the program in 2010 and the founder of Deb Romain Consulting, says she found out about the mentorship opportunity after attending an outreach event through Columbia.

“It taught us how to better manage our small businesses,” Romain says. “As a result of doing work with Columbia, we were able to open a small space within the Harlem area, so it makes it even more accessible and helps us expand to the Harlem neighborhood even more.”

According to “Growing Together,” a monthly newsletter the University publishes about the Manhattanville project, 42 percent of the total money Columbia spent on construction in the third quarter of 2014 was paid to MWL-owned companies, and 34 percent of the total funds the University spent from August 2008 to September 2014 was paid to MWL companies.

Additionally, 47 percent of the total workforce hours on the site in the third quarter of 2014 were worked by MWL-owned companies, according to the newsletter.

Iman Issa, the manager of the Studebaker Cafe, a sandwich shop in a Columbia-owned Manhattanville building that also houses University offices, says she has noticed a spike in the number of MWL workers at the site in the last couple of years.

“There is a big change in the construction as far as females. They’ve increased the percentage of females and minorities, which I was happy to see,” Issa says.

Levine says he and his staff are looking into whether Columbia has followed the stipulations in the CBA regarding jobs.

“I’m not sure about that,” he says about whether Columbia has followed its promises in the CBA. “My staff and I are in the midst of doing our due diligence on that.”

Lend Lease, a multinational construction and infrastructure company, is in charge of all jobs in Phase I of the project, but refers all media inquiries to the University, who directed Spectator to the January 2015 “Manhattanville MWL Workforce and Spending Summary.”

Many workers on the site are members of local unions. According to a union official with ties to the project, the University hires the contractor, which then has an agreement with trade unions. Members of a local union on the site report to that union’s shop steward, the first person on the job from the local, according to the official.

“From my perspective, Columbia’s been very, very good,” Jerome Meadows, the shop steward for Construction & General Building Laborers’ Local 79, a union at the Columbia site, says. “They bar no expense for the safety of the public and the workers, and that’s unprecedented, in my eyes, on a construction site.”

Meadows, who has been working in construction for 25 years and on the Manhattanville site since October 2012, says this project seems to have the largest percentage of minority and female workers he has ever seen.

“This one was shocking to me, and also very inspiring to see that Columbia––I’ve often heard people talk about that they would have this type of participation with the community in mind, and I think they’ve kept their word, as far as I can see,” he says.

Some other members of companies involved with the site speak highly of the project.

“All I want to say is ‘job’s going well,’” Chris Evans, vice president of engineering for Universal Builders Supply, a subcontractor working on the project under a contract with Lend Lease, says. “Columbia’s been good to us. Contractor’s been good to us. It’s been a good job.”

Lawrence Shapiro, vice president of Howard I. Shapiro & Associates, consulting engineers on the project, notes there are many companies involved with the site, and it is often difficult for smaller firms to see the larger picture.

“I think it’s going. We’re really kind of niche players,” Shapiro says. “As far as any kind of grand view of the project, I wouldn’t know.”

But Jeffrey Cruz, corporate counsel at E.E. Cruz & Company, which holds work permits posted on the construction site, says that his company’s involvement with the project is pending in New York State Court. Cruz notes that Lend Lease is another party in the case.

In March 2014, E.E. Cruz and Nicholson Construction Company, another subcontractor on the Manhattanville site, sued Lend Lease for $23.6 million for “bad faith, willful, malicious, recklessly indifferent or grossly negligent conduct.”

The University did not comment on the litigation.

Still, Shapiro and Meadows say Lend Lease has been easy to work with on the project.

“They have good people on the job,” Shapiro says. “They’re very professional. They’re safety-conscious. We haven’t had any issues with them.”

“Generally speaking, they’ve been very good up here at this project,” Meadows says of Lend Lease.

According to other community members, minority hiring may be happening, but jobs are not going to the young people who need them most—like the ones who live in the Grant and Manhattanville Houses, public housing developments across the street from the new campus.

Community Board 9

While Community Board 9, which is responsible for West Harlem, had initial issues with the implementation of the CBA, it now works with WHDC and reviews the document continually to check the University’s follow-through on its commitments.

Victor Edwards is chair of the strategic planning committee of CB9, which is charged with monitoring the CBA on behalf of WHDC.

“I don’t know if the CBA is a flexible document, but the committee offers suggestions to Columbia, and we are always identifying problems based off what we see in the community,” Edwards says.

Edwards is currently in the process of reviewing the 50-page CBA document, alongside “Growing Together,” a publication that Columbia releases monthly, which provides updates on the status of community relations.

Edwards says that as part of the community board’s review, each committee picks programs sponsored by the CBA and investigates their activities.

Members of the community board also have meetings with University officials, at which Edwards says administrators have answered some of the board’s questions.

“We are still waiting on some answers,” Edwards says. “At present, we are making a list of things the University can help with and streamlining priorities.”

Given the Columbia’s vast assets, Edwards says he is concerned about how the benefits and grants available have been publicized.

The CBA commits $20 million in community access to Columbia facilities, services and amenities, referred to collectively as “In Kind Benefits.” A spokesperson for Columbia says that the University works with WHDC on the provision of the benefits.

“I spoke at the Manhattanville tenants association meeting back in October,” Edwards says. “It’s been four or five years, and, still, people say ‘really, that exists?’ about the CBA.”

April Tyler, chair of the land use committee of CB9, says WHDC has not fully engaged with the community.

“If they truly wanted to be a community partner, they would have made, and would make, more open-ended commitments,” she says. “From my perspective, they’re not, and I don’t hold out real hope that they’re going to change their tune.”

Grants to Nonprofits

“CU shall deposit the installments of the Benefits Fund to a “Fiscal Sponsor” that shall be acceptable to both the WHLDC and CU … CU shall not unreasonably withhold its approval of such Fiscal Sponsor. Such Fiscal Sponsor shall hold and disburse the Benefits Fund in accordance with the instructions of WHLDC, subject to the procedures set forth below.”

—Section II.B.2 of the Community Benefits Agreement

Through the Community Benefits Agreement, Columbia University commits to a Benefits Fund of $76 million to be incrementally distributed by the West Harlem Development Corporation—a semi-annual grant cycle over a 16-year period.

WHDC is a fiscally sponsored project of the Tides Foundation, a San Francisco-based donor-advised fund that directs money to politically liberal organizations.

A Tides Foundation spokesperson says that the CBA adds a nontraditional element to the project structure, as WHDC is committed to a specified amount—the $76 million—of funding for public benefit in the community.

WHDC awards grants to organizations addressing issues related to housing, economic development, education, environment, transportation, arts and culture, community facilities, and historic preservation.

Kofi Boateng, the executive director of WHDC, says that WHDC works within these well-defined areas and awards grants of anywhere from $5,000 to $50,000 to organizations based anywhere benefiting specifically the residents of CB9.

Edwards says that in grant cycles thus far, about three-fifths of the grants went to organizations based outside of the District 7, which encompasses West Harlem and Manhattanville. Although he said that ideally all of the organizations given grants would be based within the community, he acknowledged that a limited range of organizations exist on the local level.

Many grants are awarded by WHDC for organizations to expand into West Harlem.

Beyond timely payment of promised funds, the University has no obligations under the CBA. Monitoring, administration, and disbursement are all the responsibilities of WHDC.

Indeed, a spokesperson for the University confirms that “Columbia does not monitor the awardees of WHDC grants. We are in contact with these organizations only insofar as many of them are local community groups with whom we have some connection.”

The installments of the Benefits Fund are paid in the form of grants awarded by WHDC to nonprofit organizations serving the West Harlem community.

“More than 90 percent of grantees have done exactly what they said they were going to do,” Boateng says. “We have made a big impact, and we look to do even more.”

WHDC’s website makes accessible the names, grant amounts, and contact information for the nonprofit awarded grants in the four grant cycles thus far, which began in 2013.

East Harlem Employment Services, Incorporated (STRIVE), one of the oldest workforce nonprofits in the country, recently received a grant of $33,929 in the second cycle of 2014. Ellen Hartwell Blais, the senior director of development, says that, in order to fulfil the grant, the organization had to commit to serving West Harlem specifically.

Hartwell Blais says that WHDC reached out to STRIVE, encouraging them to apply for the grant.

“We very excited to work with WHDC, and this grant will help us expand our services throughout all of Harlem,” Hartwell Blais says. “The fact that we are based in East Harlem means that we attract more people in this area, but we want to serve all of Harlem.”

Hartwell Blais says that thus far, the grant has facilitated a collaboration with Harlem Children’s Zone, based on East 125th Street, who wanted to offer job programs for students’ parents.

“We had been searching for a way to work together and have funding, and WHDC funding made this happen,” she says.

Many grantees describe the online application process for the grant as straightforward and easy.

“We had a great experience with the application,” Kristen Morse, executive director of Madison Strategies Group, says. Madison is an employment-services nonprofit headquartered downtown that received a grant of $32,658 in the most recent cycle.

Through its WHDC grant, Madison Strategies Group is engaged in an effort to increase the availability of employment services for residents of the Upper West Side and Harlem.

Morse said that although they are not based in the area, after discovering the WHDC grant, they realized that they already had a number of strong relationships with employers within the designated community and were able to leverage those connections.

But while national operations like Madison and STRIVE have been able to tap the Benefits Fund, not all local nonprofits have been able to secure and sustain grants.

Derrick Haynes, a longtime anti-violence activist and former resident of the Manhattanville Houses on Broadway and 131st Street, says the $40,000 WHDC grant he received in 2012 was not renewed in 2014, despite the successful performance of his nonprofit, Full Circle Life Enrichment.

“I was just surprised and shocked given that we’ve been here for so long,” he says.

Haynes says his work with fellow activist Taylonn Murphy, whose daughter Tayshana Murphy was murdered in 2011 in a shooting at the Grant Houses on Broadway and 125th Street, has gone unrecognized by WHDC.

After receiving the first $20,000 of his grant in 2012, Full Circle Life Enrichment recruited youth in the community to participate in job development and gang reduction programs in the summers of 2012 and 2013. WHDC wrote about the group’s activities on its website in 2013, crediting it with starting the “reconciliation initiative” that had at that point reduced violence between the Grant and Manhattanville Houses.

Violence between the two housing developments has been an issue for four decades. In June, a massive police raid conducted by the NYPD resulted in the arrests of over 100 residents.

But Haynes said that in 2014, when he was expecting to receive the second installment of his grant, he had a meeting with Boateng, who informed him that the rest of the money would not be forthcoming.

“His feeling was we wasn’t doing enough,” he says.

Grant and Manhattanville Houses

“The WHLDC is committed to improving the quality of life for the residents of Grant and Manhattanville Houses. At least $3,000,000 of the Benefits Fund shall be used to implement capital and program needs of Grant Houses and Manhattanville Houses in coordination with the residential leadership and with the consent of NYCHA.”

—Section III.N of the Community Benefits Agreement

Aside from grants from the benefit fund, the CBA allots $3 million from the $24 million affordable-housing fund specifically for programs at the Grant and Manhattanville Houses.

Just a block east of the Manhattanville campus and nine blocks north of Morningside, the two public-housing developments struggle with a lack of green space and infrastructural problems in addition to the persistent youth violence that Haynes’ program sought to address.

“The parks here need to be done,” Ana Bueno, a resident of the Manhattanville Houses, says. “It’s filthy, it’s horrible—they need to be cleaned and repaired.”

WHDC now manages this portion of the fund, which will be paid in installments over 16 years.

“To date, about $500,000 has accrued,” Boateng says in an email. “Grant and Manhattanville draw from this fund at their own will, meaning they send us information in the project they’re drawing for. To date, we’ve only received one request for funds and it was fulfilled.”

Requests for funds are managed  by a newly formed group created specifically to manage this $3 million, called the Manhattanville Houses and General Grant Houses Benefit Corporations.

The group consists of both tenant residents of Manhattanville and Grant Houses, the NYCHA managers of each property, and an executive director of the committee who is elected as a representative for both houses. It is currently in the process of becoming a 501(c)(3).

Columbia’s obligation, however, stops here. It does not take part in deciding how the funds are used—in order to avoid any conflict of interest—and is only required to provide the money to WHDC, so it may be distributed to the houses.

How the Houses Benefit Corporations decide to make capital improvements is entirely up to them. And, so far, the group has only requested funds for capital improvements, although residents feel that the money should also be directed to youth programming.

“I want that [funds from the CBA] to go to the youth,” Alexis Mena, a resident at the Grant Houses, said. “They have to know that there are people around here that care for the youth.”

Vincent Carter, another resident of Grant Houses, stopped when he overheard the conversation.

“Yeah, we need something for them to do,” Carter said.

Haynes says the Houses Benefit Corporations have so far underutilized the funds, which he says would be better used to fund intervention and employment programs of the kind he started with the WHDC grant.

“Their first request was for $85,000 for air conditioners,” he says.

Carter expresses dissatisfaction with the amount of money Columbia has made available to the developments.

“Three million dollars? That wouldn’t get this building alone,” he said, pointing to one of the eight 21-story buildings in the complex.

According to Bueno, the Manhattanville houses also need repairs.

“Every building here—there’s something wrong in every floor.”

Still, Mena maintained that fostering positive relationships between the youth is the priority for the houses.

“They wouldn’t have to worry about making a wrong choice,” Mena said. “You know where we come from—it’s not easy around here. I’m just lucky I’m one of the people who chose the right path in life.”

The Houses Benefit Corporation has two items on its agenda, both tailored to tackle the youth question: repairing the basketball courts and creating a membership club.

The courts, riddled with cracks, sprouting weeds, and missing nets for hoops, can rack up a huge cost to repair.

One of the bids Marrietta Dunn, executive director of the committee, received for the Manhattanville court asked for $33,595. But for the two courts together, the price escalates.

“I had a bid to do both … for $77,187,” Dunn said. “So we’re not talking pennies here.”

This kind of price was, in fact, too much for the initial amount of money available.

On the flipside of these capital improvements, the corporation wants to use the money more directly with the youth.

“We’re also very involved in having our children be able to experience things off and away from the area,” Dunn said. “We are trying to set up, more or less, a membership club made up of children between the ages of 14 and 18 to tell us where they would like to go.”

“The children here haven’t been anywhere, if you know what I’m saying,” she adds.

The priority focus on the children comes from recent difficulty in gang development that created tension and opposition between the two housing complexes.

“We didn’t have that before so how did that come about?” Dunn said. “Now, how are we going to address it?”

These ideas to engage and keep the youth involved in the community aim to relieve these tensions and develop a more amicable relationship between the youth in the two communities.

“We are very well-planned, if nothing else, to have the young people come together between the two developments, so that this stupidness that went on in the past will not continue,” Dunn said.

*   *   *

In spite of criticism, Columbia has essentially upheld its end of the Community Benefits Agreement thus far. But, because the project will continue for more than another decade, it would be premature to say that Columbia has completed its obligations to Manhattanville.

Nearly six years after the CBA was signed, it is clear Manhattanville remains a neighborhood divided. And controversy about the CBA likely will not end anytime soon.

While there will probably never be consensus among residents, it is up to the community to make sure all parties involved stay true to the CBA.

“Columbia made a lot of commitments,” Levine says, “and we have to make sure they live up to that.”

A project such as the Manhattanville expansion is such a massive change to a neighborhood that a community benefits agreement alone cannot possibly allay all residents’ concerns.

“There’s always something to be unhappy about,” Gross says. “My experience is that residents of low-income communities are frequently and usually justifiably, or often justifiably, unhappy with how development projects play out. That’s for a variety of reasons, and the CBA is probably not a tool that can fix every problem in a complex development. And if people are looking for the CBA to solve every problem with a complicated urban development project, they’re probably going to be disappointed.”

An agreement as far-reaching as the CBA will inevitably come along with challenges.

“The issue is, how do you enforce the CBA agreement in the language that was used to make sure that whatever Columbia agreed to was enforceable, and it was going to be monitored on a regular basis?” Vince Morgan, a 2006 graduate of the School of International and Public Affairs, a Harlem community activist, and former candidate for New York City Council and for United States Congress, asks. “The language that was written I don’t think was strong enough to make sure that that happened.”

But even Morgan, a longtime critic of the expansion, remains hopeful.

“There’s a lot of great things in the Community Benefits Agreement,” he says. “I just hope they’re fully realized.”

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