Thursday, April 26, 2007

Lessons Not Learned: Who Will Educate the Educators?

In an insightful column in today's NY Post Craig Charney, a polling executive, makes a compelling case for the use of Atlantic Yards as a model of how to develop grass roots support for a development project. Charney notes that, "broad support for Atlantic Yards didn't just happen. Listening and reaching out to a range of public and private actors insured that the project won the backing it needed."

As he goes on to point out, the FCRC was "willing to listen and make concessions-to a variety of interests that developers often ignore or outright oppose." And in addition, the developer brought in "some of New York's top political and marketing pros." The fact that FCRC brought us into this struggle, indicates the perceptiveness of people like Bruce Bender and Scott Cantone who understood that to develop grass roots support you need to have folks who understand the organizing that needs to be done at that level.

Of course, the grass roots support needs to be buttressed by a creative negotiation with community forces that leads up to the crafting of a community benefits agreement that can be seen as a foundation for generating even wider local and city wide support. This was done, and the end result was, in the view of one of the project's strongest critics, "terrific and creative commitments."

What was terrific in the AY CBA? The setting aside of 2,250 units of affordable housing, half of the project's total, and the insuring that a good percentage of the work on the development would be done by minority and woman contractors. All of which makes Charney see this project as, "an example of how to make big development projects work." And he then proceeds to focus on the Columbia expansion effort.

Will the university and its great minds be able to learn the lessons of Atlantic Yards? Charney thinks that it must and points out that Columbia is already "working with the West Harlem Local Development Corporation to negotiate a similar community-benefits agreement to govern its plans for West Harlem."

On the contrary, the the grass roots efforts for the two projects are grossly disparate. Whereas Ratner and crew really went to develop local support, the university is looking to build a faux effort through the use of its political muscle. The West Harlem LDC is a prime example of this ersatz effort, and resembles more of a Potemkin Village than a real representation of West Harlem's interests. What local group would hire one of the city's leading real estate attorneys pro bono to represent its interests, someone who has never sided with local groups in any land use battle?

So far the LDC has exhibited no real local fortitude and is beset with a fifth column that is looking to make a deal at the expense of real community interests. Which is why there has been no affordable demand put forward to Columbia-or any housing demand at all for a university that wants to develop all 18 acres without a single apartment for local residents (at the same time it is evicting around 400 low income local people). In fact, the LDC doesn't seem capable of forwarding any concrete proposal, since it seems to lack any clear sense of direction.

In conclusion, Charney remarks that, "While developers must listen and deal more to make such projects succeed, the rewards will more than compensate for what they lose in control." But it really all depends on the project. As we saw in Related's theft of the Bronx Terminal Market, developers can still get over without any real concessions if there aren't any elected officials willing to stand strong for local interests.

Where the Columbia expansion plan stands in all of this is still uncertain. The initial actions of the university, however, don't give real promise for the kind of enlightened self interest that FCRC exhibited in Brooklyn. It appears that Columbia is looking to appear good, rather than to be good.