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Who will benefit from arena CBA?

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Over the past 10 weeks, while invited community members, community board leaders and heads of community organizations worked with Bruce Ratner to clandestinely forge a community benefits agreement for the Atlantic Yards development, the question asked by local politicians, individuals, neighborhood associations and opponents of the arena project has been, “Who exactly is the community?”

Work on a community benefits agreement, or CBA, came about at the urgings of organized clergy members in April to get Ratner’s development company, Forest City Ratner, to sign a legally binding document that would commit the company to affordable housing, local hiring, and public green space, among other benefits, to appease concerns about the super-sized 24-acre area to be razed and developed with office skyscrapers, high-rise apartment buildings and a basketball arena.

But a research analyst for Good Jobs NY, which is part of a national group that studies economic development and helped develop the landmark Staples Center CBA in Los Angeles, Calif., upon which the Atlantic yards CBA is based, said the missing factor in Brooklyn was any incentive for the developer.

“It sounds like groups that are basically already in favor are working with him,” said the analyst, Stephanie Greenwood. “It’s hard to understand where the community leverage is coming from.”

The negotiating members, which include two representatives each from BUILD (Brooklyn United for Innovative Local Development, based in Prospect Heights), ACORN (a national housing advocacy organization with a local branch on Third Avenue in Park Slope), the Downtown Brooklyn Advisory and Oversight Committee (DBAOC, a group of political and business leaders that urges developers to hire minorities and women), and the chairpersons from community boards 2, 6 and 8, have sat in on negotiations overseen by Borough President Marty Markowitz, who has long been a champion of the project.

Until the story was broken by The Brooklyn Papers on Oct. 2 [link], the meetings were a secret affair, and community boards 2 and 6 had not announced to their members that they were taking part at all.

The project’s critics have complained that most of those involved in the negotiations do not live in the area. Only one group, BUILD, is a stone’s throw from the project site, although none of BUILD’s negotiating members live in the footprint of the arena plan.

“The community is anyone who doesn’t live in the footprint, anyone who does not live in Prospect Heights, and anyone who is not critical of the project,” said Prospect Heights Councilwoman Letitia James, a vocal opponent of Ratner’s plan.

But Forest City Ratner asserts that the negotiators are representative of the larger community.

“We’ve already reached out,” said Johanna Flattery, a spokeswoman for Forest City Ratner. “We have ACORN, we have BUILD, we have community boards 2, 6 and 8, we’ve invited the reverends, we have the borough president involved — all these people represent different pieces of the community. It’s pretty much all of Brooklyn, and certainly the area that is going to be affected by the arena.”

But when Ratner brought the Rev. Herbert Daughtry, of the House of the Lord Church in Boerum Hill, into the fold of negotiating members on the CBA, concerns arose that the chosen negotiators not only get a say, but also get first dibs at naming their prize.

At the Oct. 7 press conference announcing Daughtry’s participation, Daughtry expressed his idea for a community health center and day care facility in his neighborhood, which was entertained by Ratner on the spot.

“Because we’re still in negotiations it’s pretty premature to talk about who will be playing what role with the final agreement,” Flattery said. “Until it’s signed we really can’t even discuss that, because we don’t know.”

The lack of transparency in the negotiations is another concern for Greenwood.

“It presents a big problem for community leverage if the public is only getting this after the pieces have settled in place,” the economic development analyst said. “The point of the process is to enable community negotiations, it’s not for the government’s sake.”

Greenwood said that in the past, these kind of agreements were used to convert people who might otherwise oppose a project into supporters. And government oversight, she said, helped in those negotiations.

When asked who will ensure that Forest City Ratner keeps all the promises it agrees to in the final CBA document, Flattery said, “It will be enforced by Forest City Ratner. And Forest City Ratner has always kept its promises and intends to do so in the future.

“We will have this legally binding document, the CBA is legally binding,” she said, but then added, “However, while there is intention to honor anything we sign, there will be real-live solutions to compensate for what might not be done.”

Flattery declined to elaborate further.

Weekly CBA meetings, according to BUILD’s Michael Caldwell, have been ratcheted up to twice weekly, in hopes of finishing a signed agreement by next month.

“There will be task forces and there will be committees to make sure the agreement is enforceable, and we’re still working on that,” Caldwell said.

“We’re really working for strangers, I mean a lot of people we don’t even know will be affected by the project and a part of the project,” said Caldwell. “It would be nice if everybody could be at the table, but let’s face it, everybody couldn’t fit in the room.”

Bertha Lewis, the ACORN representative, said that her group mostly focused on housing, but “most CBA’s are pretty lame on housing,” she said, citing the Staples Center scheme, which she said only ended up with 20 percent affordable housing — just enough to receive tax subsidies for development. The plan for 50 percent affordable housing that Ratner has offered is “a big breakthrou­gh,” Lewis said.

“The way were doing this is that it’s seamless, you don’t leave out people in the middle,” she said. “Overall I’m making sure that there’s an oversight and that there’s a real contract.”

So you don’t have just a ‘feel good’ piece of paper, that you look up from five years from now and go, ‘Oops, something shifted’.”


Updated 4:00 pm, November 10, 2010
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