Bronx News Network
Last winter, the City Council killed a Bloomberg-backed plan to turn the Kingsbridge Armory into a shopping mall, largely because community activists, job advocates and a united front of Bronx elected officials said the project lacked a strong Community Benefits Agreement; most notably, there was no guarantee for living wage jobs.
What started out as a local story went citywide and Community Benefits Agreements -- or CBAs: agreements signed between the developer and community stakeholders that promise additional benefits for local residents impacted by the coming development -- became a hot button issue among political, development and labor circles.
While strong CBAs, including some with living wage guarantees, were being signed in other big cities around the country, developers in New York City, backed by it's pro-development (with no string attached) mayor, was late to the game. Some CBAs were signed -- at Atlantic Yards (Brooklyn), the new Yankee Stadium (Bronx) and the Gateway Center Mall (Bronx) -- but they lacked teeth and true community involvement, community and job advocates charged.
The Armory case became an entirely different animal altogether and the prospects for a strong and enforceable CBA seemed possible. There were active community groups involved in the process from the beginning and the developer, the Related Companies, repeatedly said it would enter into an agreement at some point. But real negotiations began late and it all fell apart over the living wage issue.
In the aftermath, living wage legislation was introduced in the City Council (though its since stalled), Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr. convened a new star-studded task force to create a new plan for developing the Armory (no word on what's happening with that) and new Comptroller John Liu created his own task force to create a "proposed framework for public benefits agreements in New York City that would create clear expectations, encourage broad participation and result in enforceable public benefits that comply with legal standards."
Liu's group -- made up of what appears to be a diverse and vast group of labor leaders, real estate developers, academics, business associations, thinktank types and lawyers (plus Al Rodriguez, general counsel for Diaz, the only elected official who appears to have a voice in this report and was very active in the process, according to Scott Sieber, Liu's spokesman) -- delivered the goods this week to some degree of controversy.
Crain's reported that three members of the task force -- Louis Coletti, president of Building Trades Employers, Mark Levine of the law firm of Herrick Feinstein Jerilyn Perine and Julia Vitullo-Martin, a senior fellow at the Regional Plan Association -- resigned from the task force.
"We understood from the beginning that not everyone would agree on everything," said Sieber in an e-mail this morning. "But the comptroller was insistent that doing nothing or keeping the status quo was not an option."
Because New York is so new to CBAs, there was no existing framework for how these deals get done. In Los Angeles, for example, the CBA negotiation process is built into the approval process of most big development projects. In other words, CBAs are more or less law. With this in mind, creating a framework would represent a giant step toward making CBAs part of real estate development going forward. Still, implementing it is a whole other story.
Bloomberg and other like-minded developers and policy experts have long maintained that development is good, period. Adding CBAs into the agreement will only make development more difficult, they contend. But CBAs appear to be here to stay, in some form or another.
In an op-ed written by the co-chairs of the task force, which summarizes some of the reports recommendations and findings, they say: "we sought best practices that would immediately introduce credibility and predictability to a 'wild-west' process that has thus far proceeded without guidelines."
Here's some of the task force's recommendations:
• Encourage vigorous, broad-based and informed community participation to make public benefit agreements more accountable and more responsive to community needs and potential project impacts.
• Better equip the respective elected officials and community boards with third-party subject-matter experts who can assist in developing strong terms of accountability and delivery of tangible benefits to the community.
• The total value of a negotiated package of benefits should be proportional to the size of the subject development, as the primary purpose of a benefit agreement is to mitigate project-related impacts.
• Contain within public benefit agreements clear, concrete terms and a schedule for delivery of implementation.
• Ensure enforceability by incorporating public benefit agreement terms into a legally-binding regulatory agreement between the developer and the lead agency and/or a restrictive declaration for review by the City Council.
• Monitoring by the New York City Comptroller all benefit agreements, related restrictive declarations and development agreements, and issue an annual public benefits agreement compliance report card.
• Have executed agreements publicly available to facilitate monitoring of implementation, discourage conflicts of interest and to inform residents of potential employment opportunities and other negotiated benefits.
We'll try to delve deeper into some of these recommendations in the coming days, weeks and months. Who knows? Maybe some of it will be implemented by the time there's a new plan for redeveloping the Armory.