Butts on Columbia Expansion: Politicians 'Polluted' Negotiations on Community Benefits

At a panel discussion last night on development in the city, multiple community organizers and the Reverend Calvin Butts, pastor of Harlem’s Abyssinian Baptist Church, criticized the process of forming community benefits agreements (CBAs) in order to bolster public and governmental support for large development projects.

The tool seems to be a technique increasingly favored by developers of controversial projects, who negotiate with members of the community, agreeing to include in the CBAs provisions for things such as affordable housing and local jobs.

Panelists at the forum, which was organized by the Municipal Art Society and the Rockefeller Foundation and moderated by The Observer’s Matthew Schuerman, directed their harshest words about CBAs toward the process currently going on in West Harlem, where a board of elected officials and community members are hashing out a CBA with Columbia University. With Columbia exclusively talking with the board, known as the West Harlem Local Development Corporation, the debate has been essentially closed to the rest of the community, the panelists argued.

“It was removed from full control of the community, by people from the political sector getting involved,” said Ron Shiffman, a onetime city planning commissioner and former director of the Pratt Center for Community Development. "It was tantamount to zoning for sale,”

Reverend Butts joined in the criticism, saying he had met with Columbia about forming a CBA, only to have the university close the door on him in order to talk exclusively with the Local Development Corporation.

“We sent a plan that we thought covered all of the areas that you would want to cover, and immediately after that meeting—this is one of the real issues that I have—the representatives of Columbia cut off all communication. Not a word,” Mr. Butts said. “When the political establishment got involved, it polluted it.”

The solution, at least according to Messrs. Shiffman and Butts: have the city or state create policies around issues such as the inclusion of affordable housing and similar matters, taking them off the negotiating table for each individual development.

Last week, the Columbia CBA hit a bit of a bump in the road, as three members of the Local Development Corporation resigned in protest, saying they were being kept out of negotiations with the university.