Monday, December 03, 2007

Columbia's Benefit Agreement?

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 advisor 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.

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.

And the WHLDC has done just that, with an impressive display of numerous, interminable, and going nowhere gatherings. Unlike the Yankee Stadium and Bronx Terminal Market debacles, that saw the Bronx BP essentially create his own benefits package in the name of the community, the current CBA process has all of the appearance of openness; which brings to mind Machiavelli's dictum: "It's always better to appear good, than to be good."

Of course the proof here will be in the pudding that the LDC concocts. Given the posture of the two local council members, however, we can believe that the results will be more than de minimis. The Spectator captures this skepticism in its editorial this morning: " But although the University has effectively won the bureaucratic battle for expansion, the administration should remember that they have yet to convince many students and neighborhood residents that their proposal is a sound and ethical one for the community."

The current faux populist process is unlikely to overcome the suspicion in the community. As the Spectator points out and gets the last word: "While this decision cements the broad outline of expansion, many issues remain unresolved. Members of the community are still anxious over many potential problems, like the potential use of eminent domain, gentrification, and the loss of affordable housing. If the administration wants tensions to subside, it must find a way to connect with these residents and make clear that Columbia intends to expand responsibly. The resignations last week of high-profile figures in the West Harlem Local Development Corporation heighten the perception that Columbia is circumventing community leaders in favor of cutting deals with powerful politicians."