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As Columbia University embarks on a decade of expansion in Manhattanville, neighbors who have long opposed the school’s plans are now considering an unusual compromise. Community Board 9, which governs most of the area, wants certain concessions—including additional green space and living-wage jobs—in exchange for its support.

“Columbia is expanding, which would result in tremendous economic benefits for Columbia University, so we want to make sure that commensurate benefits are felt by the community they’re coming into,” said Jordi Reyes, chair of Community Board 9.
If approved, the contract, known as a community benefits agreement (CBA), will be the first of its kind in New York City. CBAs have been popping up across the country to incorporate community demands as developers seek to expand stadiums, build Wal-Marts—and extend college campuses.

Recently, Harvard University used a similar model when working with Cambridge officials to rezone an area for new university housing and law buildings. University planners ultimately agreed to build walkways and ease traffic in exchange for community backing. Such support typically eases re-zoning, because elected officials can be shown a legal document proving a compromise has already been made.

Community Board 9 doesn’t have legal power over the Department of City Planning’s proposed rezoning of the area—between 125th and 133rd streets, west of Broadway—to accommodate Columbia’s expansion, but it is trying to channel public opposition into a productive alternative. Members of the board are working with planners at the Pratt Institute Center for Community and Environmental Development to develop a preliminary 197-a plan, a recommended blueprint for the area, that includes the CBA proposal. The board hopes Columbia will incorporate more community-accessible parks, private businesses and well-paying jobs into its expansion.

Although no formal agreement has been drafted, there are signs of communication. Members of the community board have presented the university with their draft 197-a plan and say they have discussed the CBA concept with university officials. Columbia President Lee Bollinger met with the community board last month. The university will not comment on whether it will negotiate or sign an agreement.

According to Brad Lander, executive director of PICCED, “Columbia’s been talking about what they would do to give back to the neighborhood now that they own much of the land in Manhattanville, and I think they’d be willing to wrap that up into a Community Benefits Agreement.”

It may be slow going, however. When the Staples Center wanted to expand and create an entertainment district in an urban Los Angeles residential neighborhood, it took months of closed-door negotiations with community representatives to hammer out a community benefits agreement. In the end, 29 community groups, about 300 residents and five labor unions signed onto the plan.

While community benefits agreements are new to New York, some local lawmakers have been pondering the idea for years. Councilmember Letitia James often mentioned CBAs while campaigning for her District 35 seat. Currently, she’s negotiating one for the Atlantic Yards development, directly modeled on the Staples Center plan. “And if this works,” said James, “I’d like to put them to use all over the district.”

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