Activists want a citywide policy on community benefit agreements before March

All eyes will be on Council President Darius Pridgen this coming new year, in anticipation of his support of a citywide policy that would require developers of major projects to establish community benefit agreements with neighborhood partners prior to receiving city approvals.

National experts in urban planning argue that the policy would mitigate residential displacement associated with gentrification, broaden the economic benefits associated with urban reinvestment, and create a framework that fosters collaborative relationships between neighborhood residents and the investment community.

Critics of Mayor Byron W. Brown argue that his administration took ten years to pass a form based zoning code, a perhaps a cutting edge policy twenty years ago. Progress so slow and policy approaches so dated should hardly be applauded, activists argue.

They want a citywide policy mandating that 3% to 5% of the face value of a real estate development project must be allocated to initiatives negotiated in a benefit agreement with a multitude of community partners. Such a mandate would serve as a national model for inclusive economic development policy, activists insist.

Katrinna Martin-Bordeaux, the founder of Young Black Democrats of Western New York has been publicly campaigning for a citywide policy requiring community benefit agreements for any real estate development project valued over $10 million. She argues that such a policy will help developers build collaborative relationships with neighborhood partners early in the development process, which will turn obstructionists into business partners.

“The beauty of the community development agreement is that it allows the entire neighborhood to get on board a project, to find a way to fit into the broader development momentum in the city, helping to ensure that our economic development policies are impacting the community in a broad based way,” she says.

Left to right: Katrinna Martin-Bordeaux, wrongfully terminated police officer Cariol Horn, and anti-racism organizer Siobhan DeJesus.

“It also takes the current process out of the shadows — where developers are shaken down for kickbacks in order to get approvals,” she explains. “The business community, especially the real estate developers, are with me on this — they want to have a mutually collaborative relationship with our community. They don’t want to see their resources wasted in a politician’s proverbial pocket. They want to help revive the East Side, too.”

“With community benefit agreements everyone can participate, not just the board of one land bank. If a developer wants to build something in your neighborhood, they have to come to your neighborhood and find partners right there,” she says. “It empowers you to set the vision and direction of your neighborhood.”

A community benefits agreement is a contract signed by community groups and a real estate developer that requires the developer to provide specific amenities and/or mitigations to the local community or neighborhood. In exchange, the community groups agree to publicly support the project, or at least not oppose it. Often, negotiating a CBA relies heavily upon the formation of a multi-issue, broad based community coalition including community, environmental, faith-based and labor organizations.

Pridgen has gained admirers in recent months for his newly energized advocacy for economic and social justice.

As local governments grapple with their responsibility to shape development and land use patterns, the community benefits movement emerged in the late 1990s to challenge conventional thinking and offer more broad based economic development at the municipal level.

The movement aims to ensure that the main purpose of economic development is to bring measurable, permanent improvements to the lives of affected residents, particularly those in low-income neighborhoods and communities of color. Organizations allied with the community benefits movement have pressured the public sector to play a more strategic role in land use planning and urban growth, and to leverage economic development subsidies toward the creation of good jobs, affordable housing, and neighborhood services that improve the quality of life for all residents.

The community benefits movement began in Los Angeles, with successful implementation at mixed-use projects at Hollywood and Highland, and at the Staples Center. CBAs have been successful in Atlanta, Denver, Milwaukee, Minneapolis, New Haven, New York City, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, San Diego, San Francisco, San Jose, Seattle, Syracuse, Washington, D.C., and Wilmington.

Low-income neighborhoods, non-English speaking areas, and communities of color have historically been excluded from the development process. Having a CBA negotiation process can help to address these problems, providing a forum for all parts of an affected community.

A CBA can ensure that a developer’s promises regarding community benefits are legally enforceable. Developers “pitching” a project often make promises that are never written into any project approval documents, and even when they are, they may not be monitored and enforced by the relevant government agencies. By creating an enforcement mechanism or expanding the class of parties who can enforce these promises, CBAs can make enforcement much easier.

The CBA contract model allows each particular CBA to be tailored to the community’s needs, the size and type of the proposed development, and the relative bargaining power of the community groups and the developer. Benefits may be provided by the developer itself, or a CBA may require the developer to impose CBA provisions on its tenants, vendors, and contractors. Typically, CBAs include job quality standards, local hiring programs, and affordable housing requirements. Other benefits could include, among other things:

  • Living wage and prevailing wage requirements
  • Local hiring goals
  • Job training programs
  • Minority/women/local business contracting goals
  • Provisions prohibiting developers from hiring contractors that have violated labor or other occupational laws (known as “responsible contractor” provisions)
  • Union neutrality requirements
  • Retail/commercial space set-asides for small and local businesses
  • Big box retail restrictions
  • Green building requirements
  • Space set-asides for neighborhood organizations, community centers, child-care centers, and other non-profits
  • Construction of parks and recreational facilities
  • Provisions for community input in the selection of tenants
  • Funding for community organizations/programs
  • Mitigations in excess of those required under state/local law that address parking, traffic, increased pollution, and other environmental impacts
  • Affordable housing requirements
Critics have been calling on Matt Enstice, the Executive Director of the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus, to participate in a Medical Campus Benefit Agreement Round Table scheduled for late March 2017.

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