Monday, May 10, 2010

Columbia Benefits Agreement in State of Collapse

As the eminent domain challenge to Columbia University's expansion into West Harlem heads to the Court of Appeal, the grand scheme has some additional headaches to try to resolve-a community benefits agreement that appears to have foundered on incompetence, if not outright corruption. As the NY post reported yesterday: "A $76 million windfall intended to help Harlem residents is in limbo -- and may never be paid -- because the politician-backed nonprofit in charge of distributing the money is in disarray, the Post has learned. Although it formed four years ago, the West Harlem Local Development Corp. lacks a mission statement, has yet to get tax-exempt status from the IRS and doesn't even have a phone number. The group already has received $500,000 from Columbia University -- part of a 16-year payout designed to assuage community fears over the school's expansion -- yet hasn't spent a cent on the neighborhood."

No, we're not shocked-and neither are those five prescient souls who walked away from the scam when they saw how it was being rigged by the pols: "Concerns about the agreement surfaced even before it was drafted in December 2007. Five West Harlem board members resigned, upset over the heavy-handedness of the politicians involved in negotiating with Columbia. "The LDC sacrificed good development because it wanted to control a slush fund," Tom DeMott, one of the former board members, told The Post. Another former board member, the Rev. Earl Kooperkamp, said the politicians "dominated the LDC." Kooperkamp, the rector of St. Mary's Episcopal Church in Harlem, said the pols "whittled down" the community initiatives, which included better housing and subsidized transportation for seniors."

We did see this coming: "The resignations of three of the board members from the West Harlem LDC, the group set up to ostensibly negotiate a community benefits agreement with Columbia University, has raised the question of how much the LDC actually represents community interests. As we have commented before, the fact that Jesse James Masyr is the board's attorney and adviser creates the impression that there may well be a fox in this particular chicken coop, and that the legitimate interests of the local community may be sacrificed."

At the time, the LDC defended itself against the resignations of the three prophets: "Now we have received, courtesy of the resigned Mr. Sprayregen, a copy of a statement from the LDC commenting on the resignations. It is a marvel of newspeak. Here's a sample: "Entrusted with doing the people’s work and making certain that the terms of a CBA address the community’s needs and desires as they relate to the proposed Columbia University expansion, the WHLDC has held open forums, convened public sessions of its weekly general meetings and included many community members in its working groups to ensure that the public is kept informed and community feedback is obtained. As is consistent with public outcry, the WHLDC remains opposed to the use of eminent domain for private conveyance."

The statement, however, contrasts sharply with the perception-underscored by the resignees but echoed by many in the West Harlem community-that the real negotiations have little to do with "open forums," and more to do with the agendas of sitting politicians. It does seem. however, that Jesse M. has learned something from his Bronx experience with CBAs-at least create the impression of openness."

Here's more on our bud Masyr, who was brought in to ostensibly supervise the children. As we said at the time: "Of course the problematic nature of CBAs in NYC are given a new meaning by the Columbia situation, where the supple Jesse James Masyr was brought in to supposedly represent community interests in West Harlem: "A Memorandum of Understanding was signed by Columbia University and community groups last month on the same day the City Council approved the school’s $7 billion expansion plan. While the MOU lays out the framework for negotiating a future Community Benefits Agreement, it lacks a CBA’s binding power. At the request of the city, attorney Jesse Masyr agreed to represent pro bono the community coalition, the West Harlem Local Development Corporation. He had been on the other side of a CBA, representing developer the Related Companies in the Gateway mall project at the Bronx Terminal Market."

So  what did Masyr do to earn his money? Oh, we forgot, he was hired pro bono-guess you get what you pay for. As the Post reports: "At least five people have quit the nonprofit, alleging that it was becoming a "slush fund" for Manhattan politicians. The delay "threatens to undermine" the agreement and leave Harlem with nothing, Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer charged in a scathing letter to the group. The organization hasn't set up any guidelines for doling out the cash and ensuring accountability, yet its four-member executive committee is itching to write checks without "a formal application process, without public notices, without protocols for selection, without advice from a community advisory committee," Stringer said in the letter, addressed to then-West Harlem President Julio Batista.

Stringer's doing some butt covering here, since it was the BP who came in during the late innings to bless this usurpation of Nick Sprayregen's property rights-while doing nothing proactive to midwife the housing deal we had proposed in the interest of compromise-a situation of reaping what you sow for Scott Stringer.

But doesn't all of this underscore the compelling need for the CBA reform that Comptroller Liu has set out to achieve? It certainly does in our view. But the more immediate problem in West Harlem is for someone to come in  to rectify the colossal mess-certainly not Columbia, a university that has shown just how deft its community relations ability is with its handling of the issue of the renovation of Floridita-a local Cuban eatery.

In the midst of all of this chaos, wouldn't it be poetic justice for the Court of Appeals to smack Columbia upside its Ivy League head? Now that would really be a community benefit!