C.B.A.’s: Coming to a Bar Near You

Community benefits agreements—contracts between real estate developers and grassroots organizations to provide jobs or housing for local residents—are popping up all over without anyone much agreeing what they are and what they should and can do. Aside from a handbook published last May by some of the people who created the first C.B.A.’s in California (PDF), there has not been much, and yet these agreements are becoming part of the fabric of real estate development in this city.

In March, the New York City Bar will hold a panel discussion on the topic March 13 at the association’s headquarters, 42 W. 44th St. Entitled “Community Benefits Agreements: Who is the Community and What is the Benefit?” and sponsored by the association’s land use, planning and zoning committee, the panel will include City Council Member Melinda Katz; Joshua Sirefman, Deputy Mayor Dan Doctoroff’s chief of staff; Carl Weisbrod, former president of the city Economic Development Corporation; and Brad Lander, executive director of the Pratt Institute Center for Community and Environmental Development.

It turns out that the bar association tackled C.B.A.’s once before. In a report to Mayor Ed Koch in June 1988, the bar association recommended the developers only be required to provide improvements that were included in the zoning code (such as building a subway entrance in order to get a density bonus) or that would mitigate environmental disruption that the project would cause (such as traffic).

The report concentrated on the role of government, and less on community groups striking their own deals with developers. And back then these improvements were called “amenities” and had less to do with jobs—today’s hot topic in Brooklyn’s Atlantic Yards, the Gateway Mall in the Bronx, and Columbia University’s expansion in Harlem—and more to do with parks or senior housing. But throughout the 44-page report (included in “The Record of the Association of the Bar of the City of New York,” Vol. 43, No. 6), the bar association committee strikes notes that resonate today. Here’s a sample:

The ad hoc payment of money or services in return for favorable governmental action also adversely affects the decision-making process. In egregious cases, the decision maker is corrupted. In less egregious cases, satisfying the wish list for a borough president, community board or a mayor enhances the recipient’s political power. The decision-maker may accept the project in order to get the unrelated amenities, when perhaps it should be voted down. Thus integrity is eroded, of the government in general and of the zoning laws and land use regulations in particular.

Matthew Schuerman

C.B.A.’s: Coming to a Bar Near You