It was more than two years ago, over a couple of beers at the West End in Morningside Heights, that Jordi Reyes-Montblanc first told a Columbia University official that he wanted a community-benefits agreement.
These devices—contracts that force developers to promise jobs or other goodies in exchange for political support for a project—had been circulating in urban-planning circles since 2001. The idea, which has been likened to extortion or to the subversion of democracy by critics, has made recent forays in New York City, appearing at Atlantic Yards and again at the Bronx Terminal Market shopping center.
“Whenever people come to the community to develop something, it is seldom, if ever, resulting in any benefit for the people who have made this place real,” Mr. Reyes-Montblanc told The Observer recently. “We want it in writing, we want it contractual—in a way that it can be fulfilled, that it can be verified.”
Mr. Reyes-Montblanc, a Cuban-born international-shipping consultant who heads the local community board, was holding a relatively strong hand: His board was working on a zoning plan that would compete with the university’s. The Pratt Institute was offering advice, and the Bloomberg administration seemed to view the whole thing as an interesting test case.
Columbia, meanwhile, was eager to heal the wounds that Harlem residents still felt from the university’s attempted takeover of Morningside Park back in 1968.
And so, the Ivy League official sitting across the table from him, senior executive vice president Robert Kasdin, indicated that he would be amenable to “talking with legitimate representatives about how our expansion should benefit the surrounding community,” Mr. Kasdin recalled.
Finally, after months of preparation, the negotiations for the community-benefits agreement began last month. Once completed, the C.B.A. may set a precedent for all other large real-estate projects in New York City, a precedent which, based on the way it has evolved so far, would be much more rigorous than those already established in the Bronx or Brooklyn.
Or it could provide more evidence that negotiations like this, outside the halls of government, come to no good.
PRACTICALLY SPEAKING, THE COMMUNITY-BENEFITS agreement will likely provide the key that Columbia needs to unlock city approval for its 17-acre expansion into West Harlem—an expansion that the university’s president, Lee C. Bollinger, has pretty much staked his tenure on.
Mr. Bollinger has known of the city-locked university’s desperate need for space since his very first interviews to get the job. His inaugural address in October 2002 even mentioned Manhattanville—the university’s preferred name for the southernmost section of West Harlem—as a possible expansion site well before the school went public with its plans.
“It turns out, at least from my point of view early on, that it was space that was the critical determinant in whether, over time, Columbia would maintain its greatness and achieve its potential,” Mr. Bollinger, a broad-shouldered man with salt-and-pepper hair, said recently in his office in Low Library. “Because of the crisis of the 1960’s, part of which involved space, Columbia has struggled for several decades to address the issue. While other universities were growing significantly, Columbia was making do with a building here, a space there, and it really had to, in my view, address this in a more comprehensive way.”
Mr. Bollinger considered a site along the Hudson River in the West 50’s, but decided in favor of West Harlem, in part because of its proximity to neighboring Morningside Heights and in part because, he said, “Harlem is a place of great magic, of mystique, of tremendous creativity and accomplishment.”
Ironically, by choosing Manhattanville, the man who became a champion of affirmative action shortly after becoming president of the University of Michigan, whence he came to Columbia, is putting himself in the position of displacing about 132 ethnically diverse households. Columbia has promised to relocate the residents in comparable or superior lodgings, but, according to LaVerna Fountain, Columbia’s assistant vice president for communications, details about how long tenants would enjoy comparable rents haven’t been worked out.
Mr. Bollinger said that he doesn’t see a contradiction between his University of Michigan and Columbia personae, but he does acknowledge that relations between the university and Harlem need to improve.
That’s where the community-benefits agreement comes in.
“The C.B.A., first of all, provides a context to build a relationship with the surrounding communities, and I don’t mean just engaging in a discussion about what Columbia can do and wants to do, but what the communities would like to see, and their aspirations and needs,” Mr. Bollinger said. “Secondly, it provides clarity of those things that we can agree to do for the surrounding communities—so we get that sort of settled. Lastly, it builds a base of trust. Over time, that is equally important, maybe more important, because the limits of what Columbia will do for surrounding communities will not be set by the community-benefits agreements.”
WHEN THE COMMUNITY BOARD STARTED TO FORM an entity that would negotiate on West Harlem’s behalf, one thing was certain: Harlem didn’t think much of the community-benefits agreement for Atlantic Yards, in which developer Forest City Ratner negotiated directly with nonprofits that would end up making money from the agreement.
“Ratner and the city got together with one big, national not-for-profit and a set of local sycophants and put something together which doesn’t seem to have satisfied too many people, except for those who are benefiting directly from it,” Mr. Reyes-Montblanc, the chairman of Community Board 9, said.
The community board wanted to keep out elected officials as well, at least until 2008, when their clout might be important to force Columbia to comply with the agreement. The point was to avoid the conflicts of interest that were apparent when Bronx City Council members negotiated a “community-benefits program” with the Yankees that called for, among other things, a $32 million charitable trust fund that would be indirectly controlled by the same elected officials who negotiated the deal.
Instead, the West Harlem community board began selecting representatives from the different public-housing projects nearby, as well as someone from the local business organization, another to represent the commercial-property owners—in other words, representatives from different constituencies, rather than heads of organizations that might benefit from the agreement.
Then, during the first meeting between the local development corporation and Columbia in August, a string of elected officials, with U.S. Congressman Charles Rangel at the head of the line, walked into the meeting room on 125th Street.
The politicians, who had been invited out of courtesy, argued that if they were going to be asked to enforce an agreement, they should help forge it. And besides, given all the difficulties of selecting true representatives of the community, why not go with some duly elected representatives?
“It was absolutely clear to us, by the time the meeting ended, that if we didn’t include their representatives on the board as voting members, that we would be doing so at our own peril,” said one development-corporation board member.
After several more weeks of give-and-take with the elected officials, the local development corporation went back and revised its by-laws to permit them as voting members to the board—but only after the corporation raised questions about whether or not there would be conflicts of interest with their official roles in the land-use approval process. The corporation asked the elected officials to seek legal counsel on this point.
Susan Russell, the chief of staff for City Councilman Robert Jackson, said that only two of the elected officials now on the development corporation’s board—Mr. Jackson, who represents West Harlem, and Inez Dickens, who represents an adjacent district—would also vote on the land-use application. (The other five elected officials are state legislators, Mr. Rangel, and Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer, who only issues recommendations on land-use plans.)
“Elected officials bring experience to the board,” Ms. Russell said. “They bring the power of their office. And they help legitimize and broaden the base of representation of the board.”
The community board is struggling to maintain a united front against the use of eminent domain—the government’s right to take private property, with compensation for the owner, so long as it goes to some sort of public use, with “public use” being variously defined. Tom DeMott, a former post-office employee who is a tenants’ representative on the development corporation’s board, fears that the involvement of elected officials may dilute that resolve, even though they profess solidarity.
“The problem with having elected officials on the local development corporation is that one of the constituents they represent is Columbia University,” Mr. DeMott said. “There is immense potential here, but there is also immense potential to get screwed.”
The views on eminent domain among the current 19 board members of the local development corporation—including representatives from elected officials—is actually diverse and nuanced, according to the corporation’s president, Patricia Jones, a certified public accountant who lives in Hamilton Heights.
“Some believe that eminent domain is a land-use issue, and therefore outside the purview of the C.B.A. Some believe that because the Empire State Development Corporation will make the ultimate decision as to whether or not eminent-domain powers ought to be used, a lot of people say that’s a state issue,” Ms. Jones said. “You’ve got others who say, ‘I don’t care whose issue it is, it needs to come off the table.’”
Right now, Columbia says that it owns 67.5 percent of the 17 acres it wants. Another 20.5 percent is owned by the Metropolitan Transportation Authority and other public agencies. Just 12 percent is privately held.
“In my view, it would be irresponsible to take eminent domain off the table,” Mr. Bollinger said. “I don’t know if we will ask for it—I hope not—but certainly I think that, when there is an economic interest that is standing in the way of a public purpose, like major work on the brain that may cure diseases like Alzheimer’s, I think we should be in a position to use it or call for its use.”
It may turn out that the community-benefits agreement will become the price that Columbia has to pay for the right to take that final 12 percent of property by eminent domain. Consider: The university softens up the local development-corporation members with enough well-meaning promises that a majority of them would overlook the eminent-domain issue. The City Council takes its cue from the local development corporation and approves the land-use changes that Columbia needs to turn an industrial slum into gleaming scientific laboratories.
IT’S NOT SUPPOSED TO HAPPEN that way.
Officially, the city considers C.B.A.’s separate from the zoning changes that the Planning Commission and City Council decide, but in practice they are intertwined. The Related Companies and the Yankees negotiated their community-benefits agreements until just hours before the City Council took its vote on the land-use plan, because the Council was waiting to see that the affected neighborhoods got something for their pain.
And since the state will make the decision on eminent domain, that City Council vote is really the only one where local officials could block Columbia from taking property away against the owners’ will.
Meanwhile, the official city policy on C.B.A.’s is murky. Why, it was just 10 months ago that the Mayor called an attempt at creating a C.B.A. for the new Mets stadium “a ransom.” Yet the Bloomberg administration has sanctioned the Columbia C.B.A. to a greater extent than any others.
It was the Mayor’s office, for example, that drafted Jesse Masyr, a developer’s attorney who represented the Related Companies for Bronx Terminal Market, to work pro bono for the community group.
And the city’s Economic Development Corporation has allocated $350,000 to pay for a mediator and underwrite certain other expenses.
“What we have attempted [is] to play the role of honest broker in discussions between the community and Columbia,” Deputy Mayor Dan Doctoroff told The Observer in January.
But Mr. Doctoroff added that he didn’t see the use of a C.B.A. in West Harlem as necessarily a model for future large-scale development plans.
“We’ve learned that community input is absolutely essential,” he said. “We’ve also learned that every community is different, so we continue to take a very tailored approach to every situation.”
Mr. Masyr acknowledged that C.B.A.’s raise many beguiling issues, but said they are the wave of the future. One question is how closely related the benefits that a developer promises must be to the project undertaken. Another is whether, by linking votes on the C.B.A. with the ones that the City Council takes on land use, the C.B.A. doesn’t amount to extortion.
“It’s an evolving issue,” Mr. Masyr said. “I can easily anticipate in the future seeing more involvement from government, not less.”