Thursday, February 11, 2010

Who Benefits?

Comptroller John Liu is proposing to develop standards for the promulgation of community benefits agreements. As the Observer reports: "For the second time in as many days, Comptroller John Liu has announced plans to revamp a process related to real estate development. On Tuesday, he called for general changes to the way subsidies are awarded
Wednesday belonged to community benefit agreements, the un-regulated deals often struck between eager developers and community groups concerned about their projects, usually after concessions and money have changed hands."

This is a welcome policy initiative, but one that needs to be approached with care because of the many substantive and procedural difficulties that will undoubtedly present themselves in any reform effort. As the Observer points out: "There's much criticism to go around about CBAs in New York: Just who sits at the table to negotiate with the developer (i.e. who represents the "community") is always subject to debate, and the same elected officials who are approving the project are often negotiating the CBAs as well. The CBAs, which usually have nothing to do with zoning, have become a prerequisite nonetheless for a necessary zoning approval, a common complaint from developers."

On a procedural level, negotiating a CBA is complicated by the fact that any discussions need to take place alongside of the mandated ULURP process-a procedure with a clear cut time frame that can't be modified once it commences. So, creating clear cut parameters may have to be done simultaneously with amending the ULURP process itself-something we have recommended but that is subject to mayoral approval.

Still, Liu is doing the right thing becasue of all of the chaos that has been associated with CBAs in NYC-and the way in which some of these benefit agreements have benefited only the elected officials who have crafted them (Gateway Mall and Yankee Stadium in particular).

So some standards here are a good thing, as the comptroller's statement makes clear: "

Community Benefit Agreements have become commonplace whenever private developers seek public assistance, ranging in form from tax subsidies and no-bid contracting to zoning changes and invocation of eminent domain. In the absence of standards, however, these agreements will become more problematic and ultimately irrelevant.

From Atlantic Yards to Yankee Stadium to the Columbia University expansion, the public has seen a string of broken promises to communities and questionable involvement by some government officials. Furthermore, an additional layer of unpredictability confronts developers when they engage in private negotiations over benefits associated with their projects. In fact, studies have singled out New York City's community benefit agreements as examples of what not to do."

But, as always, the devil is in the details-and crafting standards and a procedural protocol in the context of ULURP is a daunting task indeed. The Alliance has been involved in all of the aforementioned CBA negotiations, and on both sides of the equation, so we know how complex and contentious this all is. Nothing is more emblematic of this than the recently failed Kingsbridge Armory project. The RWDSU and KARA, key players in the Armory dust up, need to be point persons in any discussions on this issue.

Ultimately, if CBAs are going to be given an official policy status, then they will need to be made an integral part of ULURP. In our view, however, the need to reform the ULURP process may be an even more compelling policy goal than developing CBA standards-although we can easily see how the two can be seen in tandem. Comptroller Liu is undertaking a worthwhile effort; here's hoping that he is able to navigate this minefield with the same skill he has demonstrated on other issues.