Community Benefits Agreements: What Do They Mean for Livable Streets?

Longfellow.pngA rendering of the CBA-mandated walkable development slated for the Longfellow neighborhood of Minneapolis. Image: UrbanWorks Architecture.

Last week, Comptroller John Liu announced plans to convene a task force to study and issue recommendations about community benefits agreements in New York. While details on the task force are still forthcoming, the renewed public attention on these planning tools provides an opportunity to examine how CBAs have worked in New York and how they are increasingly being used to build livable streets.

Community benefits agreements are private contracts between community organizations and developers, requiring that the developer take additional actions for public benefit. In theory, CBAs allow groups that are shut out of the normal planning process to make their voices heard. The first real CBA was tied to the construction of a basketball arena — the Staples Center in Los Angeles, where a coalition of religious, social justice, environmental, health, immigrant and tenant organizations capitalized on public concerns over the project to win promises of living-wage jobs, affordable housing, and local hiring.

In some cases, locals have demanded the inclusion of transportation improvements in the benefits agreement. At the Staples Center, the CBA created a residential permit parking program for the arena’s neighbors. Here in New York, the CBA Columbia University signed as part of its expansion into West Harlem required it to light the viaduct along Broadway and advocate for improvements to subway and bus stations.

Where the public makes livable streets a priority, CBAs can be useful tools. In Minneapolis, one community group in the Longfellow neighborhood was able to win an impressive list of livable streets features from a developer. In addition to traditional CBA provisions like affordable housing and living wage jobs, the locals negotiated a contract mandating bike parking and paths, parking maximums for cars and car sharing, commercial space that engages the sidewalk, and even a requirement that the architecture "must be urban, not suburban, in feel and function."

Melanie Majors, the executive director of the Longfellow Community Council, explained why her group’s CBA focused so heavily on urban design. "CBAs represent what that community has in terms of priorities and in terms of challenges," she said. "In greater Longfellow, our priorities are to have this livable community."

According to Amy Lavine, an expert on CBAs at Albany Law School, we can expect to see more CBAs like Longfellow’s. "As the CBA process expands and branches out," said Lavine, "you’ll see more different approaches." Indeed, Majors says she received dozens of invitations to present on the Longfellow CBA after it was signed.

In New York, however, the history of community benefits agreements is stained with failures. The CBAs crafted here are often held up as models for what not to do, said Lavine. Millions of dollars that the Yankees promised to local organizations have never been distributed. In Brooklyn, the Atlantic Yards CBA has been criticized as little more than a fig leaf for the developer.

Lavine cited the lack of real community involvement in the negotiations of the Columbia, Atlantic Yards, and Yankee Stadium CBAs as undermining those agreements. "There have also been issues with people taking money from developers," she added. "That’s certainly not a best practice."

The potential to fix the well-documented shortcomings of New York’s CBAs may be limited. "The idea of a CBA is a private contract between two parties," said Lavine. "You can only regulate that so much."

Even so, livable streets advocates should keep their eyes on Liu’s task force. The comptroller’s office says that it hasn’t yet worked out the details of its proposal, but no matter what, CBAs are here to stay. And as the Longfellow project shows, they can help steer development to meet livable streets goals. 

  • Daniel Millstone

    I think the scandalous CBA concocted to speed the creation of the new Yankee Stadium is attributable to the combined power of the Yankees and the Bloomberg administration. Community Benefit Agreements memorialize the relationship of forces at the time they are signed. When our Billionaire Mayor and the billionaire Yankees, bulldozed the community, few opposed this vast raid on NYC’s tax base and treasury. Is it any wonder that a lower-income community got the fast shuffle too? The problem with CBAs is that community people have little leverage so that the agreements favor the Mayor and his developer-buddies.

  • Westchesterite

    CBAs are a mixed bag. As Daniel Millstone accurately describes, a good one requires political power of community members.

    An effort in Yonkers, NY to create a CBA fizzled after two years, for a few reasons:

    (1) The elected representatives preferred to negotiate with developers directly because they didn’t want to give up their power to community leaders. While they did get some concessions from developers, the representatives had trouble negotiating due to the “open meetings” laws (which meant the developers could listen-in on the representatives’ strategy sessions). Sadly, the concessions are not in the form of a legal contract (like a CBA is) and may be ignored by the developers down the road.

    (2) The developers picked apart the CBA community coalition by offering each group, especially the non-profits, its own goodies.

    (3) The community groups lacked any funding to mount a serious media campaign to force the developers to the negotiating table. The non-profits spearheading the efforts had staff essentially volunteering time after hours. Successful CBAs are often underwritten by landlords threatened with eminent domain, but these landlords may have very different goals than the community groups.

  • Why can’t CBAs be regulated? Why can’t the be mandated as part of the development approval process and be a contract between the city (or the Community Board, or some other governmental entity) and the developer? I think that would allow the process to be a lot more transparent and assure that the agreement is met. (Aside from the fact that private contracts are regulated all the time. You wouldn’t be able to sue anyone if private contracts weren’t enforceable.)

  • I have dealt with this issue in DC for many years, where CBAs are similarly very poorly defined. I highly recommend that you consider my thinking about it, as codified in this blog entry:

    http://urbanplacesandspaces.blogspot.com/2009/04/community-benefits-agreements.html

    Comments, as always, are appreciated. In DC, they are part of the zoning order by the way, but the real problem is no structured way to consider them, and limited monetization of benefits on the part of the community.

  • Amy Lavine

    Christopher,

    CBAs can be regulated and made part of the development process, but there will always be opportunities for developers to make side deals outside the planning process and claim that they represent the community’s best interests. Sorry if my quote confused.

    There are, however, a lot of difficulties with regulating CBAs. The big question is, how do you define “the community,” since if you’re going to require the developer to negotiate with the community, you need to know who that is.

    There are other legal problems with government involvement in CBAs, especially in New York, but I won’t get into that here. You can email me at alavine@albanylaw.edu if you have specific questions, or look at the material on my blog, communitybenefits.blogspot.com, or look at some of my research papers, http://ssrn.com/author=890692.

    But before making CBAs part of the official planning process, I suggest you consider what might be changed in the existing planning process to make it so that neighborhoods don’t always have to rely on CBAs to get benefits from development. Maybe Community Boards should have a more important role, for example. Maybe the whole planning process, not just CBAs, should be more transparent and open to public participation. Maybe the city should enact a living wage law or an inclusionary housing law. There are lots of options to improve development that don’t require CBAs.

  • According to Amy Lavine, an expert on CBAs at Albany Law School, we can expect to see more CBAs like Longfellow’s. “As the CBA process expands and branches out,” said Lavine, “you’ll see more different approaches.” Indeed, Majors says she received dozens of invitations to present on the Longfellow CBA after it was signed.

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