Resignations Over Columbia Harlem Expansion

People around the country seem to be having such a blast with these community benefits agreements–pacts between private groups and developers to provide affordable housing and other benefits–but in New York, they are turning out to be such chores. The one at Atlantic Yards has been faulted as a meek deal arranged behind closed doors by Astroturf groups. So people up in Harlem promised to create a truly representative body to negotiate with Columbia University over benefits that the school would offer local residents as part of its expansion, and it’s started to unravel in the final crucial weeks.

Or maybe not. Today, three members of the local development corporation are announcing they will resign from the body in protest of being shut out of the negotiations. But the lawyer representing the development corporation is suggesting that the loss of those three members may hasten completion of a community benefits agreement.

“Our mission is clear, our vision is clear. We are going to negotiate a community benefits agreement,” the lawyer, Jesse Masyr, said. “I think that you could make the argument that two out of the three members never really intended to fulfill the mission of the LDC.”

Mr. Masyr would not name which two members he was talking about.

One of the three who resigned is Nick Sprayregen, who owns four storage warehouses that would be taken over by the university to make way for its expansion. He had been fighting this summer to hold onto his seat, but is now going to voluntarily give his position up. The two other members are Tom DeMott, a tenant who lives near the expansion footprint and represents tenant associations, and Luisa Henriquez, who represents tenants in a city housing program living in the expansion footprint.

“I have participated in every committee of the LDC to try to come up with a representative body of demands that would address the needs of the community if Columbia expanded,” Mr. DeMott told The Observer. “I have invested my time. I have gone out of my way to urge others in the community to participate on committees because I saw great potential here. If that’s obstructionist, I don’t know. I think obstructionist is when it comes to [the] housing issue, of subverting democracy.”

While Mr. DeMott said he did not expect that the entire 25-member local development corporation would be allowed to attend negotiating sessions with the university, he did not even know when some of the meetings were taking place.

One sticking point came three weeks ago, after the board’s executive committee presented its housing demands to the full development corporation. He said that the housing committee, of which he is a member, was supposed to meet again before representatives met with Columbia officials to hammer out differences of opinion. But the committee did not meet, he said, and the negotiating session was held on Tuesday.

“If we are supposed to be representing the community and yet we don’t even know when negotiations are going to take place, what is the point of being on the LDC?” Mr. DeMott said.

Mr. Sprayregen said that, while he defended himself against charges of having a conflict of interest in the past, he no longer saw the point in staying on the board.

“At this late date, we feel that as a minority voice on the board, we have done everything we can to protect the community,” Mr. Sprayregen said in an e-mail. “As such, we feel we can be more effective on the outside. Further, I for one, do not want to be a signatory to a document that could represent such a sell-out of the community and that represents something that is not what the community wants.”

Mr. Masyr said that the board members would not likely be replaced because negotiations will have to wrap up in the next three weeks in order to influence the City Council vote, which has to take place by early January and may come by mid-December.

“This has not been a behind the scenes process,” Mr. Masyr said. “We are probably a bit too transparent to really be able to negotiate. When it becomes apparent that not everybody was pulling in the same direction, we have a problem.”