Arch527, a coalition of African-American architects from Harlem with an impressive portfolio, says Columbia University is failing to include them in its $6.3 billion campus expansion into West Harlem, in violation of a community benefits agreement.
Though Arch527 has worked on million dollar projects, alongside international architectural firms, and can boast having the highest certifications by the American Institute of Architects, their bids to work on Columbia's 17-acre billion dollar campus expansion, have been largely ignored. “'It's like training for the theater and someone offers you a part in your daughter's school play. It's insulting work,' explained architect Zevilla Jackson Preston, who said she was asked by the university to submit a bid to move [a reception] desk," writes Jeff Mays. "'This is a $6.3 billion project in our community, and we are not getting to participate,' said another architect, Mark Barksdale."
In exchange for permission to build its controversial expansion, Columbia signed a community benefits agreement stipulating that it apply affirmative action guidelines. But critics claim it has failed to adequately meet these requirements. The agreement "require[s] 25 percent participation by minorities, women and local businesses” and also sets "a goal that 35 percent of non-construction contracts go to minority-, women- and locally owned outfits, and that large contracts be broken into pieces so that smaller contractors can compete,” reports Mays. According to a university spokesmen, however, the agreement does not mandate it to hire minorities for anything other than construction work. The university also claims it has made a concerted effort to fulfill its obligations.
“Critics have long complained that Columbia has not lived up to the promises of the $150 million community benefits agreement, including objections it has left African-American architects out in the cold,” writes Mays. Community representatives such as Larry English blame local politicians, as well as the West Harlem Local Development Corporation [WHLDC] for failing to enforce the community benefits agreement. Recently, State Senator Bill Perkins wrote a letter to Columbia President, arguing that the university is failing to meet the terms of its commitment. In a recent interview, Perkins stated, "Columbia is expressing an interest in being inclusive, but we need to find out why they are falling short." He expressed optimism, however, saying he is facilitating an imminent meeting between Arch527 and the university.
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