Invisible Business: Black And Latino Contractors Frozen From Columbia's Harlem Expansion

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Columbia is our clarion call to be included as a vested partner in the revitalization of our great city. Columbia has lost the trust of its neighbors.

[Op-Ed]

Columbia’s Harlem Expansion: A Broken Contract


On May 18, 2009, after years of intense negotiations with myriad local Harlem stakeholders, Columbia University President, Lee Bollinger, signed a historic Community Benefits Agreement (CBA).

In this contract, Columbia explicitly detailed its $6.4 billion expansion and also its “best effort” commitment to ensure 40 percent of the jobs created during construction, 30 percent after construction in addition to at least 35 percent of the sub-contracting opportunities go to Minority, Women and Local Business Enterprises (MWLBE).  And finally, Columbia agreed to pay $150 million in direct and in-kind benefits to the community over the life of the CBA.

Let’s put the size and scale of this project into perspective. The $6.4 billion project will be spread over 17 acres, create 6.8 million square feet of new facilities and over 10,000 permanent jobs.  The sheer size of the project is comparable to building Atlanta’s Hartsfield International Airport on the Upper West Side. To say it will forever change Upper Manhattan is an obvious understatement.

I have called upon the Empire State Development Corporation to immediately hire an independent monitor, with the proper enforcement authority as called for in the CBA, to ensure that Columbia lives up to its contract with the people of Harlem.

The Columbia expansion is symbolic of a greater injustice. In New York we build things; big things. Our big ideas take the form big buildings and that is the primary driver of our local economy, not Wall Street. There are hundreds of billions of dollars in the development pipeline and Black and Latino firms have been blatantly excluded from the construction industry.  New York is our city too and we must be included in every aspect of building its future.  

Columbia is a prominent example of the inequities, but by no means the only example of public land and public funds being utilized to enrich large developers with no participation from qualified minorities. None whatsoever.

Columbia is our clarion call to be included as a vested partner in the revitalization of our great city.  Columbia has lost the trust of its neighbors.  Decades from now, the Harlem community expects history will reflect that Columbia did the right thing — that we seized the chance to train, educate, employ local residents, and provide opportunities to local entrepreneurs. Harlem must fully realize the $2 billion promised to the local economy by the CBA.

There is great hope in the Community Benefits Agreement and with that comes a greater responsibility to keep those promises. The contract with the people must be enforced. The stakes are too high for Columbia not to deliver.


Vince Scott Morgan is a Democratic political activist, community leader and businessman from Harlem. He is a candidate for the 2013 race for the New York City Council for the 9th Council District.

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