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Times article on CBA flaws: some dismay but few specifics re Atlantic Yards deal

A New York Times article today, headlined In Major Projects, Agreeing Not to Disagree, takes on the issue of Community Benefits Agreements (CBAs). Though some dismay is expressed concerning the CBA negotiated around the Atlantic Yards project, major criticisms--that the signatories don't represent the community and that they've been funded by developer Forest City Ratner--are either muted or unmentioned.

In other words, the Times missed an opportunity to say--or have a critic say--the obvious: the Atlantic Yards CBA is illegitimate compared to those model CBAs negotiated in Los Angeles because the coalition is far smaller, the signatories would not have otherwise opposed the project, and some signatories have accepted payments from the developer.

The article, which combines some mentions of CBAs nationally with an emphasis on New York, appears on the commercial real estate page rather than the Metro section, which should have covered the Atlantic Yards issue in detail already. It begins with a Brooklyn example:
To blunt opposition to its proposed Atlantic Yards project in Brooklyn, Forest City Ratner promised to make half of the rental units affordable for low- and moderate-income families.

While that was the promise in the housing agreement FCR signed in May 2005 with the community group ACORN and ratified a month later in the CBA, the original promise--aimed to blunt opposition--was for all of the housing units, not merely the rental ones.

The Times article notes that CBAs are becoming more common, ever since the Staples Center CBA was negotiated in 2001 in Los Angeles, but there are some differences:
In New York, in contrast with many other jurisdictions, the city itself is not a party to these agreements. Theoretically, at least, the pacts are not supposed to play a role in the city's zoning review process.

Signatories unrepresentative

And there's a problem, since critics wonder that CBAs distort the planning process, since favors are may be unrelated to the project's impact:
Critics of the Atlantic Yards (whose developer is a partner to The New York Times Company in its new headquarters building on Eighth Avenue) and other agreements have questioned whether the groups signing the document really speak for the community. "Groups pop up and you're not sure who they represent," said Patricia A. Jones, the co-chairwoman of the Manhattan Community Board 9 task force on Columbia University's expansion in Manhattanville. Ms. Jones contends that development plans ought to be reviewed by community boards, which are currently excluded from the C.B.A. process, before the benefits are meted out. "They can look at the bigger picture," she said.

Jones (who doesn't live in Brooklyn) is hardly a critic of the Atlantic Yards project and, while she may be a critic of the CBA concept, the Times could have cited ample criticism raised recently by both opponents of the Atlantic Yards project and even more neutral local officials. For example, the chairpersons of the three affected community boards in Brooklyn last month asked Forest City Ratner to stop claiming that the boards participated in "crafting" the CBA. That claim has appeared in several pieces of FCR promotional literature, including a brochure that emphasized the CBA with a seal.

Another difference:
Outside New York, benefit agreements are usually incorporated into the developer's agreement with the city, adding another layer of enforcement.

Mayor rethinking

The Times reports:
There are signs that Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg's administration is rethinking its position on community benefits agreements. A year ago, it was the mayor himself who trumpeted the Atlantic Yards agreement between Forest City Ratner and eight community groups.
But in April, the mayor reacted angrily to the suggestion that the Mets would negotiate a C.B.A. for its new ballpark. "Every development project in this city is not going to be a horn of plenty for everybody else that wants to grab something," the mayor said. And while the Mets agreed after heated discussions with council members from Queens to contribute $50 million over 20 years to local community groups, no C.B.A. was signed.

The mayor's office wouldn't answer the newspaper's questions, but the Times pointed to a 1988 report in which the New York City Bar Association suggested that promises to local groups corrupted the land use approval process, and said amenities promised had to have a reasonable relationship to the project.

Would that affect the Atlantic Yards CBA? Well, one example given in the Times was that the Giuliani administration stopped a developer from providing a park in response to community criticism of a shopping center in East Harlem, saying the benefit wasn't related to the project. So are promises of Nets tickets to community groups, part of the CBA, related to a construction project in Prospect Heights?

The problem with payments

The Times dances around the issue of how community groups benefit:
But the current administration has taken a more hands-off approach, [attorney Jesse] Masyr said. "I'll tell you what I think is the most dicey part of this: there's cash involved, money payments to be made. Who monitors it?" he said. "This is about as unregulated a world as you could imagine."
In California, leaders of the community benefits movement that are party to an agreement never accept money from the developer, said Madeline Janis-Aparicio, the executive director of the Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy, a nonprofit research group. "No donations of any kind," she said. She also said it took six months to a year to pull together a coalition before negotiations could begin. "You can't skip steps," she said.

Yes, the Times article is an overview, and touches on the important issues, but that would've been the appropriate place to mention some of the following: how payments to the Atlantic Yards CBA signatories--such as $350,000 to Freddie Hamilton's DBEC--depart from the model in Los Angeles, how City Council Member David Yassky has requested $3 million to fund CBA signatory BUILD, and how Forest City Ratner refuses to specify how much it has given CBA signatories.

And in Brooklyn, the CBA negotiations began just after the Atlantic Yards project was announced, not six months later. Notably the negotiations involved a new group, BUILD, which already favored the plan, rather than a coalition of established groups that would have ordinarily opposed it, as in the typical CBA template.

Modern blueprint?

Maybe this all should've appeared first in the Times's Metro section, but it hasn't. What if that Times Metro section article last October that revealed payments to BUILD had mentioned that CBA signatories aren't supposed to take money from developers? Would the article have claimed that Forest City Ratner "is creating a new and finely detailed modern blueprint for how to nourish - and then harvest - public and community backing"?

The article today closes with Melinda R. Katz, chairwoman of the City Council's land use committee, saying that New York "can probably learn a lot from other jurisdictions." True, but there's a lot more the Times could've been telling us about the CBA in Brooklyn. And it's telling that Mayor Bloomberg is no longer stumping for this or any CBA.


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