Saturday, June 30, 2007

Columbia, ESDC-AKRF'd Up

In what may become a watershed decision, Judge Shirley Werner Kornreich ruled that the Empire State Development Corporation must hand over confidential documents and correspondence to opponents of the Columbia expansion plan. As the NY Times reports this morning, the judge made her ruling "because of an appearance of collusion between the state and Columbia."

The main issue, one that we have commented on before, is the fact that the consulting firm AKRF is employed by Columbia to give the environmental impact of the university's expansion the most favorable gloss, while at the same time working for ESDC as a consultant in order to "determine" whether the area Columbia wants to seize is really "blighted." As we said previously, this is the equivalent of a take home exam that the student gets to mark herself; and it raises serious questions about the legitimacy of the entire process.

Now we have commented previously about the serious weaknesses in the city's land use review process, and in particular the worthiness of the so-called environmental consulting work that is done on behalf of developers. The good folks at the Manhattan Institute, no knee-jerk opponents of development, have cogently alerted us to the unhealthy collaboration between developers, their environmental consultants, and the review agencies that are supposed to do the proper due diligence of the data that is submitted on behalf of development projects.

The key analysis in the Institute report was the observation that no one wants to go on record "blowing the whistle" if something in the data submitted doesn't ring true. Therefore, the review process often becomes a charade and, unless the opponents have the resources to fight-like those in West Harlem-communities are never adequately informed about the real impacts of development.

The untoward situation up at Columbia, however, goes way beyond the generic inadequacy of ULURP. In this case, all pretense of fairness has been tossed out the window and the foxes haven't even bothered to dress up as chickens. As Justice Kornreich says, "'A.K.R.F, presumably, seeks to succeed in securing an outcome that its client, Columbia, would favor.'"

In some ways ESDC, Columbia and AKRF have done us all a favor and, through their blatant disregard for any semblance of pretense, clearly demonstrated the phony nature of the UURP process in this city. Now the only thing that needs to be done here is for the consultants to be recused; and for the entire ULURP process to be suspended until a clearer understanding of the interrelationships between the parties is fully revealed.

The failure of the city to do this would seem to us to imperil the project in the litigation that will almost certainly occur should the expansion be approved by the city. In any case, as Norm Siegal points out in the Times this morning the entire project reeks of collusion: "'The easiest way to put it is that you can't serve two masters...The government has the power to condemn my clients' property. But the process should be neutral and objective, and when you find out that the government has retained Columbia's consultant, it can't be neutral anymore.'"