Before Columbia University could break new ground on its planned expansion in West Harlem, the university had to meet the needs of the local community — to the tune of $150 million.
Prior to receiving the City Council’s approval for its expansion on Dec. 19, Columbia had to increase its initial monetary offer for the community-benefits package fivefold, from $30 million to $150 million, the News has learned. Negotiating the final figure required many months of dialogue between the university and community leaders in the West Harlem Local Development Corporation — but a decision to add the last $50 million of the buyout was made in only one night.
The ultimate $150-million sum — part of a community-benefit agreement — was settled on the night of Dec. 18, the day before the City Council was set to vote on the zoning proposal, which was seen as a go-ahead for Columbia’s expansion project. Going into negotiations that evening, the university had offered only $100 million. But after working with Columbia President Lee Bollinger and Senior Executive Vice President Robert Kasdin, community members bargained that number up to $150 million.
Citing the ongoing nature of the negotiations — which were confirmed by several city officials and university affiliates — Columbia officials declined to comment.
In a saga that may foreshadow Yale’s own expansion efforts down the road, Columbia has been pushing since 2003 for the construction of a 17-acre expansion in a part of West Harlem known as Manhattanville, just a few blocks from its main campus in Morningside Heights. Prior to receiving approval from the City Council, the university focused on winning support from members of the local community.
Locals, brought up in a history of frosty relations with the university, initially resisted the plan. Columbia’s expansion would displace some residents, and there were concerns that it would completely change the makeup of the neighborhood, explained Susan Russell, chief of staff for City Council Member Robert Jackson, who represents most of the area into which Columbia plans to expand.
“The atmosphere around this possible development wasn’t a good one — the community was incensed about it,” she said.
Over time, local residents warmed to the expansion plan, thanks to efforts by the university to engage in dialogue with the community, said Warren Whitlock, Columbia’s director of construction coordination.
Still, the community’s local government representatives in Community Board 9 — which includes Morningside Heights, Manhattanville and Hamilton Heights — had to claim an active role in the negotiations to ensure their constituents’ views were heard.
In order to increase direct communication between the community and Columbia, in the summer of 2005 the board passed a resolution creating a local development corporation, the LDC. The LDC was incorporated in either April or May of 2006, Russell said.
Because the corporation — which has 28 seats — includes nine locally elected officials, including members of Community Board 9, the corporation became the key link between the local community and Columbia throughout the expansion process.
“A community board is not empowered to negotiate,” said Sarah Morgridge, Jackson’s executive assistant. “The successor community voice was the West Harlem Local Development Corporation.”
Over the ensuing months, the LDC focused on a wide array of issues important to local residents — committees were formed to speak up for community members on transportation, the environment, housing and other issues surrounding the expansion.
One of the most important functions of the board was to negotiate the sum of money to be provided to the community through the community-benefit agreement.
Council member Jackson worked tirelessly to ensure that local residents were happy with the plan, and the LDC proved a key connection between the community and the university, Russell said.
Theodore Kovaleff, a former dean of Columbia Law School and former six-time chair of the LDC, said he believed New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and City Council Speaker Christine Quinn said the Council needed to vote on the expansion by Dec. 19 in order to accommodate the Council’s winter break.
On the night of Dec. 18, final negotiations for the community-benefit agreement were underway. On that evening, the LDC’s executive committee told LDC members it had been able to negotiate an increase in the size of the buyout of over 225 percent.
“Columbia had first come up with an offer of about $30 million in terms of [the community benefits package],” Kovaleff said. “The executive committee did a significant amount of negotiations — they got Columbia up to $100 [million].”
At that stage, members of the LDC felt that the community should receive more money for the displacement the expansion would cause, he said. The city had also offered to provide funding to the community through the agreement, but the LDC risked pushing too far and not obtaining as much money as it could from the city. Kovaleff likened the situation to Russian roulette.
“Had we not come to an agreement, there was the potential that we would have ended up shortchanging our community,” he said.
It was then, after several hours of discussions, that Columbia agreed to pay $150 million to the community through a memorandum of understanding.
The following day, when the City Council voted on the expansion, the stretch of time during which the funds would be allocated remained unsettled, Kovaleff said. That morning, university and community negotiators agreed to cut down that timespan, he said.
Still, a few local residents believe the negotiation process has not been open enough to community members, said Tom DeMott, a former member of the FDC and leader of the Coalition to Preserve Community, which opposes Columbia’s expansion.
Russell said the CCU tried to dominate community dialogue on the expansion. The $150 million could have a significant positive impact on the area, she said.
“We’ve given ourselves money with which the community can do anything,” Russell said.
The money has the potential to the change the lives of local residents for generations, allowing them to become “totally self-sufficient” and to find their own American dream, she said.
Still, Maritta Dunn, a member of the LDC, said both groups went into the negotiation process hoping for different outcomes, and it was necessary for the two groups to settle on a figure that fit between each of their expectations.
“We at least were able to reach something that was acceptable,” she said. “I don’t think it was what they wanted. I don’t think it was what we wanted.”