The faux community involvement in the crafting of a community benefits agreement was put under critical scrutiny this week at a panel discussion at the Municipal Arts Society. As the Observer's Eliot Brown reports (welcome aboard Eliot), the panelists, particularly Abyssinian Reverend Calvin Butts, weren't impressed: "At a panel discussion last night on development in the city, multiple community organizers and the Reverend Calvin Butts, pastor of Harlem’s Abyssinian Baptist Church, criticized the process of forming community benefits agreements (CBAs) in order to bolster public and governmental support for large development projects."
Butts was pointedly upset by the fact that the university refused to include his Abyssinian Development Corporation, the most successful and legitimately indigenous grass roots development group in the Columbia expansion area. Instead, Columbia placed all of its capital in the politically generated West Harlem Development Corporation, a group that is under the control of the mayor's office, and tangentially, the area political establishment (and bears a striking resemblance to the crew assembled by BP Carrion on the Gateway Mall).
Here's Butts' trenchant observation: "Reverend Butts joined in the criticism, saying he had met with Columbia about forming a CBA, only to have the university close the door on him in order to talk exclusively with the Local Development Corporation. “We sent a plan that we thought covered all of the areas that you would want to cover, and immediately after that meeting—this is one of the real issues that I have—the representatives of Columbia cut off all communication. Not a word,” Mr. Butts said. “When the political establishment got involved, it polluted it.”
Another panelist, the well-respected former planning commissioner Ron Schiffman, observed that there should be a city land use policy promulgated that stipulates certain key community desirables, a view seconded by Butts: "The solution, at least according to Messrs. Shiffman and Butts: have the city or state create policies around issues such as the inclusion of affordable housing and similar matters, taking them off the negotiating table for each individual development. "
This is precisely the "reform of ULURP" position that seems to be percolating within the councils of labor, at least according to a Juan Gonzales column last week. Until this happens, and it is something that we have stressed over and over, we're going to continue to witness the hijacking of legitimate community interest by pols pandering to developer wishes.
Which brings us to the Columbia process. It's hard to see how anything really beneficial to the community can emerge from such a rigged process. And the MAS panelists, "directed their harshest words about CBAs toward the process currently going on in West Harlem, where a board of elected officials and community members are hashing out a CBA with Columbia University. With Columbia exclusively talking with the board, known as the West Harlem Local Development Corporation, the debate has been essentially closed to the rest of the community, the panelists argued."
It seems to us that the emerging results will resemble the old saying that, "a camel is a horse designed by committee." Maybe that will fly in the West Harlem desert.