Tuesday, January 15, 2008

(C)ommunity (B)ogarted (A)way

In yesterday' Metro Patrick Arden focuses on the questionable manner in which Community Benefits Agreements have been promulgated in NYC: "Community benefits agreements have dampened opposition to projects elsewhere, but they’ve spawned controversy here as politicians have hammered out 11th-hour CBAs just before crucial votes. This New York style of deal making worries California attorney Julian Gross. “The entire future of the community-benefits movement could be threatened by CBAs being sidetracked and taken over by developers and electeds who want to steer and channel the community participation,” he said."

All of which means to us that the entire process-along with ULURP itself-needs to be re-thought; something that the city's Central Labor Council has begun to entertain. As it stands right now, the devising of CBAs has become the domain of elected officials whose participation not only dampens real community participation, but may also threaten the legality of the agreements that are negotiated: "“The whole thing works better democratically when electeds don’t try to pressure community groups to support projects based on the electeds’ views on what projects are good,” Gross said. When politicians are involved, critics charge, CBAs are weaker — not just in benefits extracted but also in legal protections."

Of course the problematic nature of CBAs in NYC are given a new meaning by the Columbia situation, where the supple Jesse James Masyr was brought in to supposedly represent community interests in West Harlem: "A Memorandum of Understanding was signed by Columbia University and community groups last month on the same day the City Council approved the school’s $7 billion expansion plan. While the MOU lays out the framework for negotiating a future Community Benefits Agreement, it lacks a CBA’s binding power.
At the request of the city, attorney Jesse Masyr agreed to represent pro bono the community coalition, the West Harlem Local Development Corporation. He had been on the other side of a CBA, representing developer the Related Companies in the Gateway mall project at the Bronx Terminal Market."

In the case of CU, it is still somewhat perplexing that the City Council hurried the deal through with weeks to spare before the ULURP clock ran out-something which is unprecedented in our experience with the politics of the land use review process. Here, there is no longer any political leverage for even a putative community to extract substantive benefits from the university. All that remains is the good will of Columbia-a thin reed indeed for a community faced with severe displacement.

Which means that there needs to be substantial changes (especially as community benefits agreements begin to supersede the environmental issues in ULURP) in the way the city conducts its land use business. The CLC is leading the way; a path we all should be following.