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Fair play! New effort (from former BUILD officer) to enforce Community Benefits Agreement, despite lack of formal standing (updated)

The Daily News offers an update, which puts a new gloss on Devotion NYC's campaign, since it has an element of self-interest not disclosed to me:
West said he is meeting with Forest City Ratner executive Ashley Cotton next week to discuss a proposal to have an affiliated organization, HigherSelf Lifestyle, take over job training, business development and other programs promised in the CBA.
West recently sent a proposal to Forest City Ratner, which he shared with the Daily News, to have HigherSelf Lifestyle administer the economic development programs promised by the CBA for $149,000.

It's a belated cry for fair play from a one-time cheerleader for Atlantic Yards.

Yesterday, a key participant in the early days of BUILD (Brooklyn United for Innovative Local Development), the now-defunct Atlantic Yards Community Benefits Agreement (CBA) signatory, launched a campaign arguing that the project developer left Central Brooklyn behind and must fulfill promises regarding jobs, contracts, small business loans and more.

The fledgling Devotion NYC, founded by former BUILD small business development director Michael West, now aims to get the CBA implemented, especially regarding business development and jobs for minority residents who thought Atlantic Yards would make a difference.

The challenge strikes me as quixotic, given that the contract is only enforceable by its eight organizational signatories, not the public at large or elected officials (as in some more praised CBAs), and many of its goals are aspirational.

A promised independent monitor who would report specifics on jobs and contracts was never hired. One commentator recently called the CBA a "borderline calamity."

Indeed, Mayor Mike Bloomberg signed the Atlantic Yards CBA in 2005 only as a witness and Empire State Development, the state agency that oversees the project, has said the CBA is outside its purview.

But West, an educator and community organizer who left BUILD in 2008, believes public pressure can work. He has a meeting next week with a representative of developer Forest City Ratner.

Who's in charge

That's another issue. Though the CBA obligations were presumably transferred when original developer Forest City sold 70% of the project (minus the Barclays Center and one tower) to the Shanghai government-owned Greenland Holdings, forming Greenland Forest City Partners, the CBA today is far less important to their corporate goals.

Nor does Forest City, now the front-facing part of the joint venture, call the shots as junior partner.

Once, the CBA groups--most of them formed for the purposes of the project--gave Forest City community cover as it achieved a state override of zoning and gained other special benefits. Two of them, BUILD and ACORN, supplied supporters at rallies and public hearings, which is alluded to in the video below.

Many supporters genuinely believed that Atlantic Yards could change their lives and change Central Brooklyn, albeit without recognizing the fuzziness of the promises. But a Forest City-hired consultant said an effort to find a grant-writer for the CBA signatories failed partly because people though the groups were "fronts" for Forest City. (I should add that other CBAs nationally were signed by broader coalitions.)

Ambitious, unfulfilled promises

The chart above right, and especially the video below, are somewhat wobbly regarding the promises, especially given the vague language in the CBA and the inability of anyone outside the eight community groups that signed the CBA to pursue implementation. (Note that 50% of the rental apartments, not condos, were supposed to be affordable.)

But West's crusade echoes a common frustration articulated by a good number of black residents of Central Brooklyn: the Atlantic Yards project was oversold, by both the developer and supporters, and hasn't had much impact.

I consider the CBA more trickle-down than transformative, given the failure of BUILD's job-training efforts and the delays in producing less-affordable than promised subsidized housing.

Michael West, via Devotion NYC
Yes, free arena tickets are distributed and a community foundation launched belatedly last year--both attributed to the one active CBA signatory, the Downtown Brooklyn Neighborhood Alliance, or DBNA. But numerous CBA initiatives never got off the ground. They would have required significant outside help and funding.

Moreover, the CBA was implemented in a fundamentally un-transparent way: it required an Independent Compliance Monitor, but Forest City never hired that monitor, offering vague excuses or simply dodging the question.

That means we have no concrete, and independent, assessment of how much the developers have fulfilled goals regarding, say, hiring and contracting for minorities and women. Nor do we know how much numerical progress in those areas is achieved by working with well-established companies from outside Brooklyn.

Hindsight: need for implementation

West today still thinks the CBA is a "great model," but "we should not have let our foot off the pedal once we got the CBA." In retrospect, that would have meant that community groups, many of them dependent on Forest City for funding, would have had to publicly press the developer or otherwise pursue enforcement.

That's not how things worked--and critics at the time warned about flaws in the CBA--though we now know that the relationship between CBA groups and the developer was less than copacetic.

BUILD's officers, for example, publicly praised Atlantic Yards while privately complaining that Forest City had dragged its feet regarding a promised Pre-Apprenticeship Training Program, perhaps the single most important element of the CBA. (It was the only element that, if not implemented, could have led to specified money damages, in that case $500,000.)

Though the coveted training program eventually launched, it led not to construction careers for the eager trainees but rather a bitter lawsuit, which was settled, with terms undisclosed, last year, well after BUILD, in debt, shut down in 2012.

Below in this article, I'll look more closely at the promises in the CBA. But first let's look at the video introducing Devotion NYC's campaign, and then Twitter.

The video

The video, well-scored with ominously propulsive music, begins with a photo of the railyard and states "Forest City Ratner wanted to transform Atlantic Yards into Barclays Center." (Actually, there was no such thing as "Atlantic Yards," which was the developer's brand, but rather the Vanderbilt Yard plus another 13.5 acres of private property and public streets.)

"Our communities supported them. We lobbied politicians for them," the narration continues. "Held countless community meetings for them. Marched in the streets for them and gave them $1.5 billion of our tax dollars." (Let's say there are hundreds of millions of dollars in direct subsidies, tax breaks, and other benefits.)

"Why?" the narration continues. "Because Forest City and our politicians signed a contract with our communities promising that we would receive desperately needed job training, construction jobs, construction contracting opportunities, post-construction contracts, retail space for our businesses. Affordable rentals, and affordable home sales."

"Do you see employment increasing in our communities? Do you see our businesses developing?
Has the agreement been fulfilled? We say 'no.' We are Devotion," the narration closes. "As community members, we must work together again to assure that Forest City fulfills their commitment."

Did Forest City sign a contract with "communities"? A lawyer would say no. Outsiders are not able to enforce the CBA.

Has Forest City fulfilled its commitment? Well, in some areas, such as the Independent Compliance Monitor, clearly no. In other areas, the commitments were fuzzy, and contingent on others' funding or actions.

I pointed out to West that the contract may be difficult to enforce. "My perception is that [the groups] were standing in for the community in general," responded West. "BUILD no longer exists. Does that mean that all the commitments that were made, and BUILD was supposed to complete and fulfill... will go by the wayside?"

That, apparently, will be an issue of public pressure. West, who said he left BUILD in 2008 without rancor but that they "grew away" from each other, said, "Right now, we're working with young people from the community [apparently this new group]. We're focused on making sure that the low-income and moderate-income communities that were identified in the CBA benefit from the CBA. We've just really begun. We believe that, as more light is shown, more people will work with us."

The Twitter campaign

Meeting with Forest City

I would expect Forest City's Cotton to repeat the developer's talking points: it hired significantly from Brooklyn for arena jobs and in the modular factory. Then again, the factory is likely shutting down by the end of February.

And Forest City--which now represents Russian oligarch Mikhail Prokhorov, who as of last month fully owns the arena operating company--has never specified the average weekly hours and pay for arena workers, most of whom surely don't earn enough working part-time to live on their own.

No wonder SEIU 32BJ is pushing that the next contract for arena security guards, ushers, and other event staffers enforces a weekly schedule that allows workers to qualify for benefits.

Forest City likely will tout the free tickets and the more than $100,000 distributed last year via a new community foundation. But there's no sign that the CBA's promise of "systemic changes in the traditional ways of doing business on large development projects" has come to fruition.

Big promises

Coverage in the Bedford-Stuyvesant-based Our Time Press in 2005 quoted West as optimistic:
To aid those who may not otherwise have access to much-needed capital to bid, the Director of BUILD’s small business development, Michael West, says, “Forest City Ratner is using its financial leverage with financial institutions to make available loans, lines of credit and other resources to minority business, construction businesses and other businesses that need those capital input."
That didn't happen. "It's been 10 years since we started this process," West said. "You just have to walk on the streets of Brooklyn, and talk to people, and you see that the CBA, that particular model, hasn't been implemented, to the degree that it needs to."

Looking at the CBA: BUILD's role in jobs/contracting

Perhaps the most ambitious plans in the CBA involved the role of BUILD, which did help workers get retail jobs and pointed them to a Community Labor Exchange.

Forest City was supposed to get a Project Labor Agreement from unions that would hire one trainee or apprentice from the community for four journeyman positions. That never happened.

Forest City was supposed to aim at no less than 35% Minority and 10% women construction workers. While that certainly happened in the modular factory, it's not at all clear if that happened regarding the rest of the project.

BUILD was supposed to work with local stakeholders and the Developer to create a new High School for Engineering, Design & Construction. That never happened. It was supposed to pursue other initiatives to develop jobs for Unemployed/Underemployed Adults, Out-of-School Youth, and students

Regarding construction, 20% of total contract dollars was supposed to go to MBEs (minority-owned business enterprises) and 10% to WBEs (women-owned business enterprises). Both the numbers and the names are unclear; it's hardly systemic change if a woman-owned major company from Long Island is hired, as I've written.

In 2012, the last time statistics were released, the Atlantic Yards developer was well behind both its own stated goals and New York State's goals on MWBE contracting. No update has been provided by Empire State Development nor developer Greenland Forest City Partners.

Some 20% of total contract dollars, including Concession Activities at the Arena, were supposed to go to MWBEs. Maybe that happened, maybe not. And 15% of gross retail leasing space is supposed to go to community based businesses, with special preferences to MWBEs. That's too be determined.

Another promise was for loans: "FCRC will work with local lending institutions and banks to develop special financial packages for local small business and merchants to ensure that they have the financial capability to benefit from the project."

Another was to help minority developers: "FCRC will work with minority developers to help them expand their business through mentoring, financing, providing resources and overall expertise to ensure that the next generation of real estate professionals is represented by minority members."

None of that happened. Note that another CBA signatory, the New York State Association of Minority Contractors (NYSAMC), was to work on Small Business Development with BUILD. I haven't heard of any activity in recent years on this, though the NYSAMC was and remains an active organization.

Looking at the CBA's: ACORN's role in housing

The CBA incorporated previous plans for 50% affordability, which simply means income-linked: 30% of income. As I've written at length, the developer is committed to 50% affordability, but the income ranges of the subsidized units make them less affordable than ever before.

ACORN is defunct, but successor groups, notably the Mutual Housing Association of New York, are serving as Greenland Forest City's partner, helping implement the lottery for the subsidized units. (Other successors, including The Black Institute and New York Communities for Change, have praised the affordable housing, even if not directly involved.)

They thus have no reason to challenge their partner.

Looking at the CBA: the DBNA's role in Community Facilities & Amenities 

The most active current CBA group is the Downtown Brooklyn Neighborhood Alliance (DBNA), led by the Rev. Herbert Daughtry and centered at his House of the Lord church.

A community health care center is destined for a building under construction, B3, though it surely will be paid for by public funds. Ditto for an Intergenerational Community Program Initiative, which will be part of one of the last buildings to be constructed, within a decade.

The DBNA has been regularly distributing more than 50 tickets to arena events via a lottery for community groups. However, a promised program to make the arena available to community groups for at least 10 events per year, at discounted rates, has not gotten off the ground.

A Meditation Room has been established inside the arena, but it is for use only by arena patrons, not the community at large, as once promised.

And a foundation, which was supposed to get started no later than 30 days after the signing of the CBA in 2005, finally got off the ground last year, distributing more than $100,000 to community groups, though it no longer aims--as originally promised--to "fund sports programs in disadvantaged communities."

Looking at the CBA: vague promises for other groups

Other CBA promises were vague and mostly not significant, other than providing the developer with community cover:

  • a group, renamed Faith in Action, was supposed to channel the role of clergy for referrals to jobs, housing and other programs
  • a group, renamed Brooklyn Endeavor Experience, was supposed to form and facilitate an Environmental Council for community input (but, of course, the watchdog function regarding the project's community input has gone to neighbors)
  • Public Housing Communities has helped recruit residents of public housing complexes for jobs, though that could have been accomplished without a new group; a promised "Good Neighbor" program to raise money for public housing improvements never got off the ground
  • a group, renamed the Downtown Brooklyn Educational Consortium, was supposed to help create four new schools, a child health initiative, a Youth Enterprise Program to involve students; a new Children's Zone for a comprehensive impact on Central Brooklyn, and an after-school program to enable noncustodial fathers to spend time with their children; none of that happened.

None of these groups, as far as I can tell, are active.

The Atlantic Yards CBA


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