Community Benefits Agreements

Community Benefits Agreements (CBA) are best defined as contracts dictating project-specific agreements between a developer, a local government and a community. These contracts promise the community specific amenities, benefits, and/or mitigations from developers in exchange for the community members’ support of a particular development project.

In theory, this arrangement gives the local government the power to enforce a CBA’s terms, and offers the community voice in and limited control over local land use and development-related decisions. This power is limited because by definition CBAs represent a compromise between competing interests – developers looking to maximize the return on their investments, local governments interested in encouraging economic development and capturing increased tax revenues, and neighborhood residents and small business seeking the provision of community amenities as well as protection from speculative forces.

The first comprehensive CBA occurred in Los Angeles, CA, when in 2000 developers of the Staples Center Arena announced plans to transform the surrounding area into a master-planned district that would include luxury retail, entertainment, hotel, office, and residential uses. In response, community residents joined with local labor unions to form the Figueroa Corridor Coalition for Economic Justice and negotiate an agreement that included provisions for affordable housing, preferential job placement and living wages for low-income residents and those displaced by the project as well as $1 million for community park and recreation needs.

That agreement quickly became a model for other CBAs, many of which were driven by broad community coalitions concerned with the potential impacts of proposed large-scale development.

In 2008, the One Hill Neighborhood Coalition, which represents nearly 100 community groups including unions, churches, local businesses and residents in Pittsburgh’s Hill District neighborhood, negotiated the Hill Community Benefits Agreement for the development of a new arena for the Pittsburgh Penguins professional hockey team and the associated master plan redevelopment of an adjacent 28-acre site of an existing arena. The CBA included the provision that 38 percent of all employees in resulting business enterprises had to be Hill District residents, paid living wages and had he right to unionize. It also included neighborhood improvements that ultimately led to the construction of a grocery store, YMCA recreation center, a referral center to provide and coordinate job support and the establishment of a community steering committee to oversee development of the master plan.

In 2009 a plan to turn the Kingsbridge Armory in the Bronx, NY, into a shopping mall failed when the Northwest Bronx Community and Clergy Coalition (NWBCCC) – a group of area residents, local labor unions and clergy that formed during the early 1970s in the wake of redlining, racial segregation, the rise of arson, loss of manufacturing jobs, and the fiscal crisis in New York City – protested that the project would only provide low-wage jobs and displace local, small businesses. A subsequent proposal to build a 750,000-square-foot, nine-rink Kingsbridge National Ice Center (KNIC), won support in 2014 but only after the developers worked with the NWBCCC to craft a 2013 CBA that gave the community 50,000 square feet of community space, designated 51 percent of jobs and procurement for local residents and women and minority owned firms, a comprehensive Green Action Plan that targeted the environmental impact of the development, and a commitment to no big-box retail in the development.

One of the key characteristics of such community supportive CBAs is the degree to which they are clear, legally binding and enforced. In 2008, a cross-section of community and labor groups in San Francisco signed a Community Benefits Agreement with the Lennar Corporation for the redevelopment of the Hunters Point Shipyard and Candlestick Point that the University of California Labor Center has touted for going “well beyond what was required by the redevelopment agency, existing law or similar agreements in other jurisdictions.” As seen with other CBAs, those conditions included provisions for affordable housing, housing assistance funds, living wages and job training funds for neighborhood residents. But they also established specific mechanisms for developer accountability, including the creation of an “Implementation Committee” that meets quarterly to review compliance.

Conversely, CBAs that have proven less effective have tended to have unclear terms, weak mechanisms for compliance or both.

In 2016 voters in Detroit passed a Community Benefits Ordinance that required developers to “proactively engage with the community and identify community benefits” on all development projects of $75 million or more or that receive $1 million or more in property tax abatements or city land transfer or sale. One example of its implementation is the Wigle Midtown West project, which included community requests for revised definitions of what accounts for affordability in housing, a commitment to build more parks and public green space and the creation of a $200,000 community impact fund – each of which was negotiated down by the developer. Critics point to the influence of “well-heeled corporate interests” in “eviscerating” the original intent of the Ordinance and usurping the community’s role by allowing the City to choose “the majority of those” who represent it in negotiations with the developer.

An even more controversial CBA concerns Columbia University’s effort to gain rights to land for the construction of a new, state-of-the-art campus in the West Harlem neighborhood of New York City. Columbia University ultimately won the right after a seven-year legal battle, when it signed the West Harlem Community Benefits Agreement in 2009. That CBA contains specific stipulations concerning Columbia’s hiring of minority-, women-, and locally owned (MWL) businesses, targeted hiring recruitment for residents, and funding for local nonprofit organizations and housing projects. But critics argue that the CBA left key terms to be finalized after it was approved. They also note that it includes vague language making many of the provisions unenforceable.

Clearly, some CBAs demonstrate that communities can gain important concessions and protections in these negotiations. As seen from the above examples, these often include guaranteed jobs and job training programs for residents, the creation of affordable housing and community or public space, and funds for local organizations working to address community needs.

There are, however, a number of key characteristics of CBAs that are important for communities and groups that represent them to consider.

As noted earlier, all CBAs ultimately represent a compromise between competing interests. Historically they have occurred in environments that favor pro-growth local officials and well-financed, well-connected developers. As a result, from the perspective of a community group seeking control over land and decisions affecting it, even engaging in the CBA process is problematic as communities entering negotiations have already ceded their right to determine what is in the community’s best interests and already accepted the need to make concessions.

Likewise, the CBA process has the potential to pit community members and community organizations with differing views about how to define the community’s best interest against each other. Questions about who, or which group(s), speaks for the “community” are sure to arise.

Also, CBAs are only as strong as the will of local governments to enforce them. When poorly negotiated and weakly enforced by local governments CBAs can be easily ignored by developers.

Finally, even some of the most touted CBA’s have proven ineffective at providing long-term protection for communities concerned about the nature of development and the forces of displacement reshaping their neighborhoods. More than a decade after Pittsburgh’s Hill Community and San Francisco’s Hunters Point Shipyards agreements were signed, questions about their broader impacts remain.

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