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West Harlem Local Development Corporation faces off against critics

CYRIL JOSH BARKER Amsterdam News Staff | 12/15/2011, 4:03 p.m.

As part of the agreement to allow Columbia University's major expansion beyond its traditional Morningside Heights boundaries into the West Harlem community, the university agreed to fund a local development corporation, the West Harlem Local Development Corporation (LDC).

Recently, there have been numerous reports about funds for the LDC, and there is apparently even a New York State attorney general's investigation into what has happened with the funds. But the twist in this controversy, as opposed to other not-for-profits, is that this is not a question of wasted funds, but of not spending enough money.

As the Columbia University expansion continues uptown, the agency that is deciding what money goes where for the project has recently come under fire.

While evidence abounds that Columbia is pressing forward with its expansion, as in the presence of cranes and various construction sites in the more than billion-dollar expansion along Broadway starting at 125th street, critics say the LDC's activities seem nearly idle at best or moribund at worst.

The LDC was set up in 2006 to facilitate the negotiation of a community benefits agreement (CBA), which was finally signed three years later, in May 2009. The LDC was promised $150 million in cash, in kind and in other services, and will have control over $76 million in cash to spend over the next 16 years.

So far, it has received $3.5 million since 2009. The city is claiming it will give $150 million more to the area, but it is believed that those funds will come from previously targeted capital projects that have been set aside.

Breaking down the payouts over the next 13 years, the LDC will receive more funding year on year. For example, from 2012-2013 it will receive over $3 million annually, but by 2023-2024, at the end of the payout, the LDC will receive between $7 million and $8 million every year.

In a recent interview with the AmNews, West Harlem Development Corporation Chairman Donald Notice said that the LDC had so far sponsored summer jobs for community teens and job fairs for local residents. However, he said that before spending significant sums of money, they wanted to have in place an administrative infrastructure.

"It's always been our intention to set up a development corporation that would do the implementation of the CBA to further the CBA to bring services and jobs to the community," Notice said. "Right now, what we plan to do is get an executive director on board, and we are doing a search. We have to come up with a plan in order to get service in the West Harlem community."

The LDC board plans to convert to a nonprofit after the LDC is dissolved. As a CBA, the organization will have 501(c)(3) status, if approved by the attorney general. Calls concerning the status and issues surrounding the LDC to Eric Schneiderman, the state attorney general, were not returned.

Community activist and congressional candidate Vincent Morgan has accused the LDC of a lack of transparency and oversight.

"There is no plan of action about what is being allocated," he said. "I've said all along they need to have a better process so that the community can be assured the process is fair, reasonable and that it passes the level of scrutiny."

Morgan has put in a Freedom of Information Law request.

In a statement to the AmNews, Columbia University said, "Columbia has been and remains committed to fulfilling its obligations under the CBA so that West Harlem continues to benefit from the university's long-term investment in our local community."

Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer is also questioning the LDC's operation.

"The LDC must work diligently and expeditiously to establish a sound governance structure and process to enable the WHDC to execute the CBA in the most responsible manner," Stringer said in a letter. "[This is] including but not limited to the management and disbursal of funds and the prioritization of in-kind funds from Columbia University."