CB9 to Columbia: Drop Dead!

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Bwog’s James Rathmell reports from CB9’s meeting.

Earlier this evening, Community Board 9 unanimously voted against the passing of the $150 million Community Benefits Agreement for the Manhattanville expansion.  Created to address several of the problems Columbia has run into with local residents, the CBA would have allowed for $150 million to be allotted in several categories, including housing, ‘in-kind’ benefits, and a demonstration public school to be completed in the near future. 

Two members of the CB9 board (who declined to be named) debated the issue fiercely, focusing on the eminent domain problem and the “vagueness of the wording in the Agreement.”  Much of the language, one of the members argued, was “watered down, diluted, and not the point we were trying to make.”  One of the main concerns, it seemed, is that Columbia is still relying on the use of eminent domain to further the expansion.

A man in a green sweater continually shouted from the back of the room for most of the proceedings; “This is the most important damned thing to come by CB9 in forever,” he said, “and this whole Eminent Domain thing has always been about one thing: taking property from people.”  Due to this, many of the members voiced that voting yes on the CBA “would be inconsistent with what CB9 has always stood for.”

Julio Batista, the president of the West Harlem Local Development Corporation (a local group specifically created to negotiate benefits with Columbia), countered many of these arguments.  The simple fact, he said, was the Columbia already owns 80% of the land, and that failure to sign the CBA would result in the community getting nothing as opposed to the $150 million (plus an additional $150 million provided by the state).  He stated that if the Public Authorities Control Board approves the Columbia expansion (which is expected to happen in the coming weeks), Columbia would not be mandated to provide any money to the community. 

The general consensus, was that the motion passed by CB9 would not have so great an impact on the CBA. The LDC (with two members of CB9 present) will vote on the agreement tomorrow night.  “No matter what we say, it’s not going to make a damned difference,” one member explained, “Our only question is ‘Can they give up wminent domain, period?’”  Members rallied behind this sentiment: “I don’t think we should vote on it just because it’s shameful.  It’s outrageous, egregious, and shameful.”  But a representative from the LDC settled on the fact that, “We think we’ve secured the best agreement we can.”   

Though the outlook is not good for CB9, their unanimous vote expressed as sense of solidarity for the board.  As one member put it, “[CB9] has become one of the best community boards in all of Manhattan.”

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  1. I was there.  

    There are several problems with your reporting. First of all, Julio Batista never once addressed the issue of eminent domain nor Columbia owning 80% of the properties. Second, though he did say that the community would get nothing if the CBA is voted down tomorrow, he was quickly corrected by the entire executive board of CB9. In fact, not only is most of the content of the CBA already codified in the General Project Plan, the 20 million dollar housing trust that Scott Stringer signed a memo of understanding with the school on is also in existence regardless. What tonight was about was the community being offered 70-100 million dollars in "benefits" and "in Kind" contributions, largely over a 16-year period. As one member of the Executive Board tonight pointed out, that adds up to about the same amount per year that CC spends on its student council. Not that student councils aren't important and all. But, a little insulting to a community that is going to have at least 5000 people displaced by columbia's own estimates, and 12,000 according to others.

    • observer

      As far as I know, there are only two property holders left in Manhattanville - the Singhs, who own the gas stations on 125th, and Sprayregen, who owns Tuck-it-away storage (in addition to his other business interests around the city). Other than them, the only eminent domain issue left is the effect it will have on current long-term leaseholders in Columbia owned buildings (to wit, ED would extinguish the leases, and free Columbia from having to buy out or wait out tenants on parcels they want to develop).

      As for the money, does Commenter #1 mean that today's debate and tomorrow's vote is over money in *addition* to the benefits negotiated by Stringer et al? I'd really appreciate detailed clarification. Thanks.

    • Also there...  

      You're absolutely right that Julio never addressed ED specifically. When he was asked why he was going to vote yes, however, he mentioned that Columbia already owned most (a figure of 80% was thrown out at one point) of the land. Also, the rep from the WHLDC made it pretty clear that the State probably would not enforce all of the benefits in the GPP (based on precedent), but that the CBA gave the LDC right to sue Columbia for the whole $150m worth of benefits if they failed to deliver. You're absolutely correct that it is insulting to this community, but I have to agree that the CBA is the best option that the LDC has to reap rewards from Columbia's expansion.

  2. whats the problem  

    Those displaced can buy a new home for cheap in this recession.

    • commenter #1

      What's the problem with what? Your logic? Everything. Many of the displaced don't speak English, have lived in the same apartment for over a decade, and are connected to their neighborhood like family. I know, in New York of all places. Imagine that.

      Also, banks aren't making loans right now, so housing is as hard as ever to obtain. Also also, the same predatory lenders are out there who've always been out there, and you raise an important issue, which is that we have no programs to help the displaced navigate the complex waters of first-time home ownership.

  3. Commenter #1

    No. Tonight's debate was about refusing roughly 1/3 of the total money and benefits the community will receive (the "benefits" portion of the cba totaling 70 mill.) in exchange for a principaled position regarding eminent domain and preservation of cu's affordable housing stock, among other significant issues. I would also add that tonight was a true show of unity amongst the community, with the LDC members and the CB9 as well as the activists all basically agreeing that the cba was a pitance and a slap in the face (with the notable exceptions of Julio and Cecil, both LDC members, one of whom stands to gain much from the LDC if the 70 mil is approved, the other being the LDC chair and thus the chief distributor of said 70 mil). Again to clarify: in my forst post what I refer to as benefits is the 70 million that would be awarded to the community, to the LDC in fact, in the form of money as opposed to an additional 40 million in in kind and service support, all of which CB9 voted unanimously to reject in favor of a principaled position. comething else.

  4. teh #1

    There were other problems. Thanks for taking the time to respond. For one, you failed to list the main objection from the Lawyer on CB9, Anthony Fletcher, who drafted the final resolution, said that the CBA was a weak document. Period. With poor, wishy washy language as to what constitutes "benefits" vs. "in kind (for which the community would have no legal recourse)" and who gets to make that call. Anthony thought it was Columbia. It was a very poor document, eminent domain aside. And Walter South's point about eminent domain was not that they wouldn't be affecting the process, so why not. It was that whether their statement would have a large or a small efect, they had to stand on their principles. My take. Also, of the 150 million you claim, only 76 million is subject to litigation (the "benefits"), and we just discussed how that number is fuzzy. There is also no definition of the value of 76 million in the entire CBA. is it 76 million now or in 16 years? Also, the guy you quote, Julio Batista, was roundly scorned at the meeting by a number of the CB9 members. You make him out to be a respected member of the community. Trust me, this is not the case. And it is he that will have the biggest say over how the 76 million (which is what we're really talking about here) gets spent. This sets up the community for machine politics and infighting and its a pittance. 750k a year is nothing to mitigate the awesome changes that Columbia is proposing. This article should have been about how this proves, once and for all, that the Expansion is totally imperialist and wrong. You're not the Spec, you should take a few liberties, for god's sake, if you really feel that this is a slap in the face.

  5. huh?

    "This article should have been about how this proves, once and for all, that the Expansion is totally imperialist and wrong."

    Yes, let us halt all progress for the preservation of auto repair shops. No one should ever have to move from their rented apartment because someone has the audacity to buy and improve a nearby piece of property for their own benefit. Amen.

  6. Ben

    "Yes, let us halt all progress for the preservation of auto repair shops."

    Never mind that this is a straw man argument. For those who care, see my articulated statement on the balance between progress and service here:

  7. wish washy

    So, 5000 people will be displaced in an area of ten square miles over 30 years. That is what the EIS said. 100-200 people per year. It's unfortunate, but it's far less than the rate of displacement by other market changes east of Manhattan Avenue. Hell, that's less than the change Morningside Heights sees each year. What percentage of the population inside the study area is 100 people?

    You know, the 12,000 person figure was in the EIS as well, but it was rejected as a reasonable estimate because the housing market was heating up so much Columbia's effect would be indistinguishable from the greater market escalation. Many of that number were east of the Manhattanville Houses, less accessible to campus, part of a whole different growth area, or otherwise confounded by other changes. In fact, the state had been stalling property assessment increases in Harlem for over ten years, until 2007, apparently to avoid severe disruption, but it had to eventually.

    But those were Columbia's numbers, right? They must be part of the imperialist lies! No, they were assembled by an independent preparer, whom Columbia had to hire by law to do the report. But hey, that's still displacement, and it is a really sad part of life in New York. If Columbia didn't move in, developers would, and you'd either have Williamsburg or Chelsea, instead of a world-class research university. 30 years ago, the city was a lot different, and thirty years from now, you won't be able to recognize it.

  8. Ben

    Okay, 10 square mile area? For someone as informed as you, you should know that the 5000 displaces resident number came from looking at a 1/2 mile radius semi circle around the expansion footprint. So, try less than one square mile. By the way? who are you? I'm the dude who wrote the article. I'm doing this because I care about the community and they've made their position abundantly clear at jearing after hearing throughout this entire process. The LDC couldn't even have a vote on the CBA tonight because of concerns in the community. There are 13 politicians on the LDC!!! Why do you care? Could it be that you are one of them?

    By the way, this whole "if Columbia didn't move in" nonsense needs to stop. Columbia used the looming spectre of eminent domain to intimidate local business owners to acquire most of the property in Manhattanville, and they're using eminent domain to acquire the remaining property. I fail to see how Columbia is much different than any other investor. And personally, I'd find it easier to convince hard liners like you that it's wrong to break apart communities in the self-defined name of progress, so I think maybe a different developer coming in would be better, easier to organize against and hold accountable, and ultimately essentially the same at heart: concerned with their bottom line. But you wouldn't happen to know anything about Columbia's bottom line now, would you, eh wish washy?

  9. wish washy

    You're right, Ben, the number was off. But the rate is still tiny when you consider that the 197-a plan calculates the average time of residence in the area as being 10 years. Unfortunately, I don't have the numbers at hand all the time, and I was pretty tired after attending a community board meeting where I was bullied and harrassed by rich people who listed off virtually identical arguments to CPC's ever growing tirades. Community concerns? Well everyone wants things their way.

    But it speaks of a pretty monumental arrogance to assume that I work for Columbia or some other imperialist power and scry in a limited argument that I was some kind of hard liner from one basic argument against your scary numbers. Bwog can check IPs and do a whois, and you can see I've gotten miles away from Columbia and have no interests with it. But apparently you didn't do a simple check or you are simply misleading other readers. So, no "GOTCHA!" and I'm sure as hell not telling you people what my name is.

    I mean, I'm still gobsmacked that you are so sure of your position that you assume that reason is your exclusive domain, or even that I am not sympathetic to the situation of all people forced out of their homes are. I used to be for the 197-a plan, for the "compromise" as I saw it. But the more I read and the more I understood about the greater forces of New York, I realized it's part of life in the city. The paranoid disinformation spread around new york (confusing Mitchell Lama housing with NYCHA, ignoramuses blabbering about structural engineering and geotechnics, demagogues demanding that Columbia spend its endowment on their constituents, people screaming about post-colonial structures they learned about the day before... etc) began to seem a little fatuous. If the argument was just about displacement, why do they have to lie so much, if you know what I mean? So you know what I did? I read
    and the situation became a dull cynical gray, rather than a sparkling macho noblesse oblige fantasy.

    But in regards to the second point, 45% of those same businesses were glad to sell to proxy companies before Columbia's land dealings were exposed. And when they were, the neighborhood was suddenly against development and hurried to dust off the previously-rejected 197-a plan and spiff it up a bit... And a large number of people have rallied against Manhattanville Campus, perhaps bringing the community together better than before. But hell, Morningside Heights would be overjoyed to see Columbia leave, just because it's a big organization that's easy to hate on.

    Contrary to your argument, piecemeal development is much harder to fight because there is no one enemy, no one cow with a slight conscience to demand millions from. There's no zoning process with real people at the top to demonize. Nobody noticed when Prospect Slope started to gentrify.. it just did, and the cries of displacement from excellent affordable homes were very quiet. The problem is that at some point, once the zoning is set up, property can be developed as-of-right, and it's not your business to fiddle with it, although as my experience confirmed last night, people still do.

    If you doubt gentrification is inevitable here, take a look at the 2007 real estate tax reassessment of Harlem. For years, taxes were held lower than market value because the city knew that was just another burden on owners and renters. But they eventually adjusted the prices. Some house assessments supposedly jumped up to $1M instantly because of that ruling.

    Also, and take a look at all the property changing hands in areas of Harlem over the past ten years. Actually, if you want to see local owners sell out to multiple developers before your eyes, take a look at the speculation on 2nd Avenue. Should the MTA stop building the Q extension because it's displacing people?

    You forget, because you probably weren't here when it started, that it was the businesses and their interests which dominated the debate for the first two years. Their interests are legitimate, but no more so than Columbia's interest in furthering research and academics, buoyed by some delicious gene patents. If Columbia were really interested in the bottom line, they'd eliminate the massive waste inside the school and eliminate tenure. I'm not going to deny that Columbia is a terrible landlord, but their tactics are not atypical, unfortunately.

    And if you're really concerned about eminent domain, please stop buying Phizer pharmaceuticals, riding the subway, or reading the New York times, all beneficiaries of dubious state theft of property. Columbia could - and should - do better, but I've never heard a reasonable compromise from a CPC or SCEG member. I'm sorry, but we'll have to disagree.

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