A citywide policy on community benefit agreements will be central to Mayoral primary

Critics of Mayor Byron W. Brown say that the administration has been much too focused on the interests of real estate developers in adopting a form based zoning code, which voids decades of community planning documents and replaces them with a code that says absolutely nothing about equity or inclusion. The Green Code doesn’t — not once — use the word equity.

For months the city’s highest profile social justice activists have been calling for a citywide policy on community benefit agreements — and they intend to make the policy a central issue in this year’s Mayoral election contest.  The policy 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.

“This debate is about fundamentally transforming the real estate industry into an inspired, inclusive, collaborative, participatory process,” explains Katrinna Martin-Bordeaux, the region’s leading Black Lives Matter activist and founder of Young Black Democrats of Western New York. 

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The group wants 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 for the purpose of improving the neighborhood’s quality of life or to prevent residential displacement associated with gentrification. They argue that such a mandate would serve as a national model for inclusive economic development policy.

The policy would apply to 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 the derisively-branded ‘obstructionists’ into business partners — perhaps as tenants, contractors, vendors, or employees.

“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,” Martin-Bordeaux explains.

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. 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

Activists will be organizing to make the issue central to this year’s Democratic Party primary discourse.

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Green Party candidate Terrence Robinson has been critical of the Green Code, but has not yet taken a position regarding a Citywide Policy on Community Benefit Agreements.
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