Community Benefits Agreements and their Limits


The Limits of Community Benefit Agreements

The need for Community Benefits Agreements highlights some fundamental weaknesses in the public planning and decision-making process, weaknesses frequent in the planning of mega-projects and thus particularly prominent in the use of community benefits agreements to deal with their impacts.

The problems start at the beginning. Land, once government owned, has been transferred to a private developer, without a publicly-formulated plan for its use. The well-known flaws in the old urban renewal process are repeated: the initiative in planning comes from the private sector, and the planning for the project is essentially privatized in the developer’s hands. Yet  the very first step is already a substantial subsidy given the developer from the transfer to it of a public property of very substantial value, in this case for $1. That was the point at which a fully open and democratic planning process should have taken place, with the development of alternative plans for use of the property, public hearings, full resident participation, etc.

Further, that process, when it does finally come into full play, neglects fundamental issues then belatedly and inadequately dealt with by the community benefits agreements. The economic issues, including those directly addressed by the Agreement here, should be considered in the planning process from the beginning. The economic benefits of a development, including the wages paid in its construction, and wages of the those working within it after it is developed, the description of the profits to be made from its development and use, are all matters of fundamental public concern. It has been a long time since planning was held only to be relevant to the design and use of buildings and land; key economic issues need to be much more specifically and frontally addressed.

Further, the concept of participation in planning is one that has been substantially developed over time, with modern techniques of communication and presentation, community forums, formal hearings, inter-active planning and feed-back on plans, technical assistance to community groups, wide and effective out-reach to make sure those affected, directly and indirectly, have the opportunity to influence the outcome. CBA’s, at their best, are a makeshift attempt to remedy earlier defaults in participation, and themselves often provide only a limited reach for alternative means of making the planning process truly democratic.

Many aspects of conventional city planning in many cities still reflect a time when planning  land use planning, and little more. The justification for such an approach is long past. The frequent reliance on community benefits agreements reflects an awareness of that fact, but a CBA is but a crude and jerry-built response, better than nothing, but not a long-term solution. The whole planning process should be restructured to reflect the contemporary reality.

Community needs likewise need to be introduced much earlier and much more specifically in the planning process. When a proposal is presented for the construction of 10,000 units of housing, largely luxury condominiums, an initial question ought to be the need for such units, compared to the need for other types of housing or other types of development. That is particularly true where, as here or in many other mega-project cases, there is a substantial investment of public funds in the project, whether directly, by the sale or assembly of land, by the provision of infrastructure, by tax concessions (including tax increment financing, which is after all a re-allocation from the general public purse to a particular project of expected tax revenues), good planning should weigh priorities, take into account social needs, look at the distribution of costs and benefits and pursue appropriate and democratically debated and decided priorities. A community benefits agreement is a belated last-ditch effort to make up for the failure to do so earlier.

Community input should not have to wait until a plan has been substantially agreed upon between a developer and a city before major participation takes place. Specifically, professionally-prepared alternatives should be available, prepared with full participation by the interested parties, in an effort, not to achieve consensus, but to clarify alternatives and issues. Development of alternatives should not be left to last minute and sometimes desperate community scrambling to defend a particular alternate to a proposed plan, but should be part of the initial planning process, and a part of the responsibility of the public planning agency – often best done when it includes technical assistance to community grou0s in planning as it proceeds. Alternates should not wait to be developed as minor modifications to an existing plan negotiated at the end of the planning process with limited input and formulated as a community benefits agreement.

Consideration might be given explicitly to raise the economic and community issues typically dealt with in community benefits agreements during the environmental impact review process. That process has slowly become an effective, if sometimes awkward, part of the overall planning process, and often is the main source of information about plans and proposals. Typically it will reference alternative ways to deal with problems that are foreseen, and a good EIS may provide substantial isight into what the larger alternatives might be. Typically also, at least increasingly, the social environment is held to be part of what needs to be addressed in an EIS, and often, although less explicitly, the economic impacts. Formalizing the issues to be considered in all EIS’s might be a way of helping improve the planning process, especially for meg=-projects, with the public sector leading the effort Negotiation of community benefits agreements is perhaps a reflection, among other things, of the inadequacies of full information and social and economic and environmental considerations earlier in the planning process, but is a very belatedly way of doing so.

Community benefit, after all, should be THE purpose of any good planning process, not a an afterthought to it, not a tail desperately trying to wag the dog of development

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