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CBAs head to head: Columbia vs. Atlantic Yards

Now that Community Board 9 has issued its nonbinding vote strongly against Columbia University’s West Harlem expansion plan, the project is not so much over but entering a new phase of community negotiation, according to the Columbia Spectator.

That’s because the Community Board actually has a say, as part of the city’s ULURP (Uniform Land Use Review Procedure), as Develop Don’t Destroy Brooklyn points out.

AY's flawed CBA

The Atlantic Yards process bypassed the community boards and touted a Community Benefits Agreement (CBA) that was flawed in comparison to existing CBAs elsewhere, notably in pioneering Los Angeles, as Bettina Damiani of Good Jobs New York testified.

And it’s flawed in comparison to the CBA planned for Columbia. The new West Harlem Local Development Corporation includes members of Community Board 9 and project opponents, who were conspicuously absent from the Atlantic Yards CBA. The LDC has been criticized for not allowing public comment at meetings and that seems to be a significant flaw. Even so, it is far more transparent than the behind-closed-doors Atlantic Yards CBA. Jordi Reyes-Montblanc, chair of CB9, famously said last year that “We are avoiding the Brooklyn model,” seeking a wider coalition.

The West Harlem LDC is funded not by the developer but by a quasi-public entity. As City Limits reported:
The New York City Economic Development Corporation provided $350,000 and a professional mediator, John Bickerman, to facilitate negotiations.

CBA scope and topics

And the CBA contemplated by West Harlem LDC covers several areas, including transportation, historic preservation arts & culture, and green spaces, not part of the Atlantic Yards CBA. (Another West Harlem CBA issue is research & laboratory activities, which applies to the specific Columbia situation and is not applicable to Atlantic Yards.)

Columbia University expansionAtlantic Yards
housing housing
employment/jobsworkforce development
business/economic developmentsmall business development
community facilities/social servicescommunity facilities/amenities
environmental stewardship environmental initiatives
-- public housing initiatives
-- faith-based referral services
educationeducational and related services
arts & culture --
transportation --
green spaces --
research & lab activitiesn/a


Hyping the AY CBA

A 6/27/05 press release from the mayor’s office touted “the first-ever Community Benefits Agreement (CBA) in New York City to accompany a major development project.” Forest City Ratner has claimed that the three Community Boards around the proposed Atlantic Yards site footprint participated in crafting the "historic" Community Benefits Agreement.

In May 2006, the chairpersons of the three CBs complained to Forest City Ratner, saying the “statement overstates our participation. As you may or may not be aware, we were invited to play a limited role that ended months before the agreement was signed when some eventual signatories barred us from attending the working sessions.”

Now-departed Forest City Ratner executive Jim Stuckey told the Courier-Life chain that “we met with individual community boards on many occasions and also attended a joint community board meeting that was also open to the public.” As I noted, “did play a role” does not mean “crafted.”

CBAs and beyond

There’s an argument that CBAs, as non-governmental deals, dangerously usurp the role of government. Indeed, the Bloomberg administration now seems to be shying away from them.

But if there are to be CBAs, the Columbia example shows that community concerns extend well beyond those chosen by Forest City Ratner and its partners, some of which it funded.

In January 2006, members of the Park Slope Civic Council said that Forest City Ratner seemed willing to meet and negotiate with representatives of Brownstone Brooklyn neighborhoods over issues like traffic and urban design--issues that seemingly would come up in the Columbia CBA under "transportation" and "green space."

But such a neighborhood agreement—separate from the CBA, which the developer was unwilling to open—never came to fruition.

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