HOW TO MEDIATE MANHATTANVILLE:
A NEW NEGOTIATING PARTNER IS BORN

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There are 268 active “local development corporations” in New York state, according to the Secretary of State’s office, charged with encouraging private business investment in everything from Rensselaer County to Yonkers Baseball.

One of the newest, the West Harlem Local Development Corporation, is unique. It is not directly involved in building affordable housing or creating jobs, but rather with negotiating and enforcing a community benefits agreement with Columbia University as the school pushes to build a new campus on a 17-acre site just north of 125th Street. In the past few years, community benefits agreements have emerged as vital to large development projects in New York, and this LDC was formed in an attempt to answer the question of precisely who in a given community should sit across the negotiating table.

The project aims to include laboratory facilities, a public magnet school and a new facility for Columbia’s business school, as well as university housing and a park. The area is now largely used for light industry, which Columbia has said it hopes to remove in order to create a contiguous campus. Concerns about displacing current businesses and residents as well as the size and scope of the project have led to everything from skepticism to outright opposition among members of the community.

The new LDC “is an experiment,” said Mercedes Narciso, the assistant director of community planning at the Pratt Center for Community Development. Narcisco helped develop a comprehensive plan for Community Board 9 in West Harlem – commonly dubbed a “197-a” after the relevant section of the City Charter – of the sort that community boards throughout the city can adopt to set a non-binding framework for future development. Board 9 began working on its plan in 1990, long before Columbia announced its intention to expand, and the 197-a differs from Columbia’s new blueprint on how the proposed expansion site should be zoned.

Columbia released its expansion plans in April 2004, as CB9 was reviewing preliminary drafts of the 197-a. Differences between the two emerged, and – with the encouragement of city agencies, City Councilmember Robert Jackson, who represents the area, and Deputy Mayor Daniel Doctoroff – CB9 and Columbia started meeting to determine the best avenue toward finding common ground. Once Columbia committed to sign a community benefits agreement, the question arose: “With whom?”

“The New York City charter does not indicate that the community boards have the power to negotiate community benefits agreements,” said Patricia Jones, who is both the chairperson of CB9’s 197-a Plan Committee and co-chair of the Manhattanville Rezoning Task Force, as well as a vice-chair of CB9. She is now the LDC president.

“The goal is through the seats on the board, as well as forming working groups or committees and additional outreach, to look at what would meet the needs of and be representative of the community district,” Jones said.

Those needs include addressing high unemployment and the rising rents that are making it difficult for lifelong residents to stick around. The community board has said that any agreement must cover affordable housing, jobs, job training, and access to new facilities, among other things.

Balancing those interests is no small feat, according to Brad Lander, the director of the Pratt Center.

“At one level you want some officially designated body with the blessing of government, but if you have that, then you don’t have a grassroots organization that’s likely to do organizing and apply pressure,” he said. Given the role that CB9 and local elected officials play in the city’s land use review process – which Columbia must undergo to gain the rezoning necessary for the proposed campus – the LDC model seemed logical for negotiating a community benefits agreement.

Lander faulted the agreements signed by Bronx Borough President Adolfo Carrion for the Bronx Terminal Market and new Yankee stadium for lacking a grassroots component. And not enough community stakeholders participated in negotiating the benefits agreement with developer Bruce Ratner over his proposed Atlantic Yards development, he said.

Looking ahead, Lander said he wouldn’t be surprised if something akin to the West Harlem arrangement arose in Coney Island, where developer Thor Equities has proposed a $1.5 billion makeover of the amusement park. “But for a [benefits agreement] to make sense, it’s really any project where a private developer is taking the lead,” he added.

The West Harlem LDC (www.westharlemldc.org) now has 19 members representing area tenants, businesses, elected officials and CB9, as well as environmental, cultural and faith-based organizations.

Among them is Tom DeMott, who leads the Coalition to Preserve Community, a grassroots organization in Harlem formed in response to the project that has been vocally critical of Columbia’s plans. He remains unconvinced that the new body has the resolve to strike a sufficiently aggressive stance on behalf of the community.

“I’m certainly pessimistic. When we’re looking at decisions to be made on the bottom line in terms of negotiating points, I believe we’ll be at a disadvantage because people who are very used to compromising will be a dominant force,” said DeMott, charging that the LDC was “diluted” by the presence of elected officials.

All the players acknowledge the process will take time. Actually forming the LDC was as simple as filing the necessary paperwork to create a nonprofit corporation, but filling its board was slower. This process stretched into autumn, and although the city announced the LDC’s creation in June and said negotiations were expected over the summer, they have yet to start. Columbia had refrained from negotiating with other parties at the request of CB9, but is eager to begin.

“We are looking forward to starting negotiations,” said Robert Kasdin, Columbia’s senior executive vice president. “The participants in the LDC are volunteering their time to make the LDC model work and deliver real, meaningful benefits to the affected communities … as a result, we have to be patient to see that solutions arise that are as legitimate as possible and truly a benefit to the university and the community.”

City officials have encouraged the dialogue. The New York City Economic Development Corporation provided $350,000 and a professional mediator, John Bickerman, to facilitate negotiations. There is no formal place in current review processes for a community benefits agreement, and Mayor Bloomberg has not consistently supported such agreements.

“We are committed to working with all stakeholders to maintain a process that will provide clear direction in shaping a future for Manhattanville,” Deputy Mayor Doctoroff said in a press release earlier this year.

“It’s exciting now, but the devil is in the details,” said Narciso, of the Pratt Center. “We’ll see how it’s going to work out.”

– Jimmy Vielkind