Just east of downtown Brooklyn on a 22 acre site Forest City Ratner is proposing a mega-project that would transform the Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA) Vanderbilt rail yards and a few adjacent blocks into 6,430 units of housing, 336,000 feet of office space, 247,000 feet of retail space, a hotel and an arena that would be the new home of the NBA New Jersey Nets. Like almost any mega-project proposed in a dense city like New York, Atlantic Yards is raising the ire of many. In this case, however, the names and roles of the usual suspects have changed. At least some view the developer as a savior and champion of the inner city poor, while many of the project's opponents are viewed as reactionary elites only concerned about the potential loss of their parking spaces. This reversal of protagonists is due in large part to the Community Benefits Agreement (CBA) negotiated between the developer and several community groups.
At first glance, CBAs might appear to be welcome tool for fostering a more inclusionary planning process. In an attempt to garner support for the mega-project Forrest City Ratner entered into the CBA with several community based organizations the most prominent of which are ACORN and BUILD. Under the CBA Forrest City Ratner promises to provide a number of community benefits including affordable housing, job training, jobs for local residents and community facilities. In returns the community based organizations promise to support the Atlantic Yards project, which they have done vociferously at several public meetings. What's wrong with a little quid pro quo that provides benefits to disenfranchised members of society?
The CBA has been criticized on a number of grounds, with detractors arguing that it doesn't provide enough affordable housing, that the agreement is not leally enforceable, that the community organizations are on the developer's payroll, etc. For the sake of argument let's say the CBA is enforceable, that the developer will live up to it, and that the benefits are generous by anybody's standards. How should the CBA fit into our calculus when evaluating the Atlantic Yards?
While the CBA does at least give some of the most disenfranchised residents an opportunity to reap some benefits from the project, this is an undemocratic way to insure community input into a planning process. The signatories to the CBA may indeed represent a disenfranchised segment of the community. They may be organic members of the community. But they may not. The point is there is no mechanism to insure that the "community" in a CBA is representative of the community. If the signatories to the CBA were simply viewed as another interest group, that might be ok. But the CBA is being presented as illustrative of the development's community input. Public officials are posing for pictures with the developer and signatories to the CBA, giving the impression that the community had significant input into the planning Atlantic Yards. This is not necessarily the case.
In fact, New York City has a planning process to insure community input, the Uniform Land Use Review Procedure (ULURP). The Atlantic Yards skirted the ULURP requirements because as a state entity the MTA is not subject to local land use regulations. The CBA, however, cannot be viewed as a substitute for a true planning process that includes community input. If a developer is proposing a project that will unduly burden the community, exacting benefits in exchange for tolerating these burdens is fine idea. Ideally, this would be done as part of a democratic planning process. When negotiated by private organizations, however, this is symptomatic of a flawed planning process. When CBAs are used in place of an inclusive planning process they run the risk of legitimating the very process they are supposed to counteract, planning and development that disenfranchises.
This is not to argue that community based organizations should not negotiate CBAs. CBAs offer an opportunity for poor communities to reap at least some benefits from development. But we should not allow to developers or politicians to use CBAs as fig leaves for the lack off a truly democratic planning process, as is occurring with Atlantic Yards. That CBAs are becoming popular instruments for giving the disenfranchised a seat at the table should be seen as an indictment of the lack of truly inclusive planning across the country rather than as a harbinger of more inclusive planning.