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Modern blueprint? In CBA discussion, Atlantic Yards is the elephant in the room

You’d think a Bar Association of New York panel on community benefits agreements (CBAs) would address the first such agreement in the city, the one signed on 6/27/05, after months of negotiation, by eight community groups and Atlantic Yards developer Forest City Ratner. The Brooklyn CBA did come up, glancingly but not glowingly, during the discussion last night, billed as Community Benefit Agreements? Who is the Community and What is the Benefit?” And when other CBA negotiations, in upper Manhattan and the Bronx, were mentioned, it seemed clear that the Brooklyn agreement was not admired, given the broader community outreach efforts elsewhere.

[Indeed, as the New York Observer reported, there was much concern about the legality of any such CBAs, given that developers get public money but make private deals with community groups rather than government.]

So no one in the room last night echoed Mayor Mike Bloomberg and Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz, who hailed the Atlantic Yards agreement last June; Markowitz called it “so comprehensive and far-reaching that it puts Brooklyn in a class by itself, at the forefront of the corporate responsibility movement.” No one suggested, as the New York Times wrote in October, that “[developer Bruce] Ratner is creating a new and finely detailed modern blueprint for how to nourish - and then harvest - public and community backing.” No one echoed the recent assertion by a Forest City Ratner executive that the CBA “may set the standard for all future major development projects in the City.”

True, no representative of FCR or the CBA signatories were on the panel. But in recent months, troubling information about the CBA has surfaced. Only two of the eight groups were incorporated at the time of the signing, the New York Observer reported. Develop Don’t Destroy Brooklyn uncovered documents showing that BUILD, one of the most prominent signatories, expected $5 million in support from the developer; while BUILD said that was just an estimate, it was forced to admit it had lied about not receiving Ratner funds.

Anyone waiting on line for a Metropolitan Transportation Agency hearing last July would’ve seen Forest City Ratner p.r. staffers distribute hats, buttons, and breakfast to BUILD members ready to provide “community” support. And anyone checking with an expert could have found that Bettina Damiani, of Good Jobs New York, critically contrasted the Atlantic Yards CBA with the broader-reaching agreements negotiated in California.

A cautious city rep

Last night, a mayoral representative, Joshua Sirefman, Chief of Staff for Deputy Mayor Dan Doctoroff, was a panelist. While Atlantic Yards is not his focus, Sirefman's careful comments outlined procedures quite different from what’s happened in Brooklyn, where the project was unveiled by the developer and public officials as a fait accompli, outside the city's land use process. (In today's Daily News, columnist Juan Gonzalez says the number of "sole-source mega-deals under Bloomberg is astounding.") “We don’t have an absolute policy,” he said. “We know local dialogue is good.” He described a task force that gathered information for two years regarding the development of Flushing, culminating in a request for proposals (RFP). “We know the integrity of the land use process has to remain intact.”

Sirefman suggested that the topics for the panel were all uncertain: the role of the city, the breadth of issues in the CBA, and the enforcement mechanism. “How do we define community?” he asked rhetorically. “These are all hard questions that frankly we’re wrestling with.”

Council procedures

City Council Member Melinda Katz, chair of the Land Use Committee, naturally focused on city processes. The issues negotiated in CBAs often come up in ULURP, the Uniform Land Use Review Procedure. Affordable housing has been driven by inclusionary zoning, she said, citing the council discussions over the Hudson Yards project and Williamsburg-Greenpoint rezoning. Absent was mention of Atlantic Yards, which is managed by the state and bypasses city zoning--and where the affordable housing negotiation took place between the developer and the community group ACORN, which is obligated to publicly support the project.

Katz offered an anecdote reflective of the present moment. Why are all the projects you’re bringing in difficult, she recalled asking a developer. The response: all the easy ones have been done.

Brad Lander, Director, Pratt Center for Community Development, made a glancing reference to the Atlantic Yards debate, when he cited tensions between equity supporters, who seek more development, and those concerned with livability, who might want less. No one took up the issue.

Making it work

Pat Jones, Chairperson, 197-A Plan Committee, Community Board 9, told of the effort to organize a broad-ranging CBA in Manhattanville, where Columbia University plans an expansion. (Remember, the chair of CB9 told the New York Observer, “We are avoiding the Brooklyn model.”) CB9 uses a mailing list, holds monthly meetings, and plans a “town hall” event, all “to ensure we have not overlooked anyone.”

Lander suggested that it’s good for community boards to serve as a broker for a wide range of groups. “It’ll be easier for developers than Atlantic Yards, when it becomes an enormous fight between community groups,” he said.

Carl Weisbrod, former Executive Director, New York City Department of City Planning, did not specifically endorse the role of community boards, but did note that CBAs are often negotiated with smaller groups, which can be suspect. “I think where these agreements get negotiated is going to be as important as what’s in them,” he said. [Weisbrod was the panelist who questioned the legality of such deals.]

Lander made a distinction between the groups that sign an agreement and those that implement them. Afterward, asked to amplify his comments, he distinguished between ACORN, which has a track record in developing affordable housing, and some of the other Atlantic Yards CBA signatories, who have no such experience in the areas (environment, job training) they are slated to monitor.

Jones said it was “totally unrealistic” to expect a community board or coalition to “come to the table as a full participant” without sufficient financial or technical resources. There’s no evidence most of the CBA signatories in Brooklyn had such resources. Now the Council of Brooklyn Neighborhoods seeks funds to hire a technical expert to respond to the expected Draft Environmental Impact Statement on the Atlantic Yards plan.

The elephant in the room

During the Q&A, Ethel Sheffer, president of the American Planning Association's New York Metro Chapter, pointed out the elephant in the room. For Atlantic Yards, she observed, “there appears to be no public process,” but the developer is using the CBA “as a selling point.” She said there should be a better way to assure community participation.

At other points during the discussion, panelists endorsed a better process. Weisbrod observed, “They have to be transparent, when they are agreed upon and executed.” He added that such agreements can also distort planning, since in such “private, nongovernmental deals, it’s not the government establishing priorities.” Sirefman acknowledged that guidelines should be established: “Right now we don’t have a way to monitor and ensure transparency.”

Some history

CBAs represent a new phase in an old phenomenon: the wish of the community to extract some value from developers. Two decades ago, they were called “amenities” or “extractions” and, in 1987, the Bar Association provided a report to the city on how that process had gotten out of hand. The Bar Association report recommended that the amenities must be project related and that “capital planning should not build on gratuitous deal-making,” observed Bill Valletta, former General Counsel, New York City Department of City Planning and Board of Standards and Appeals.

Enforcement of such deals, he said, was viewed as part of the city’s regulatory authority. Now that community groups negotiate directly with developers, the agreements are enforced by contract, outside the city’s authority. Weisbrod noted that the amenities provided in the 1970s were largely for capital projects, while CBAs today often involve services, such as job training guarantees.

Some 20 years ago, because of the development patterns, “the benefit and amenity packages were largely provided to empowered neighborhoods,” Weisbrod observed. Now, he said, the CBAs are more fairly distributed, not so much because of "a broader sense of equity" but because of changing development patterns. And, as that developer told Katz, there are no more easy ones.