Union Square Agreement At Risk?

Contributing Reporters on this Newscast:

Somerville, MA, Jan. 27, 2015 – The Community Benefits Agreement (CBA) that will be negotiated between City Hall and Union Square developer US2 runs the risk of being less than effective in delivering advantages to city residents, according to studies, critics and to a Tufts university professor familiar with CBAs.

A legally enforceable agreement that makes certain promises to a community regarding open space, jobs, affordable housing, and other issues, a CBA can be between a developer and a city official or agency, or between a developer and a community group or coalition. 

That detail makes a difference, according to Penn Loh, Director of the Master in Public Policy Program and Community Practice at Tufts University’s Department of Urban and Environmental Policy and Planning.

“The devil is in the details and the first detail of a CBA to pay attention to is who are the actual parties that sign it,” Loh told Somerville Neighborhood News (SNN).  “I think the best outcome for community groups is that their coalition actually is the entity that signs the contract. In that way, if the contract is not being fulfilled, there’s an accountability chain that they can directly use.”

Loh noted that there is a long list of “watered down CBAs where elected officials have negotiated agreements or city agencies have negotiated agreements,” which didn’t include enough community input and/or that were not fully enforceable.

Studies back that up.

Writing about CBAs between developers and community groups in a 2008 article in the Journal of Affordable Housing in 2008, Julian Gross of the Washington-based Community Benefits Law Center noted that “[f]rom a legal perspective, this type of CBA clearly provides the strongest result for signing community groups.”

A 2005 study of some CBAs in California, “Community Benefits Agreements – Making Developers Accountable,” by Gross and several other authors, notes that having city involvement in the CBA “may be much more powerful to a developer,” but it also recommends that community groups have a seat at the table. The authors also recommend that community groups pay careful attention to enforcement mechanisms and accountability, since “[c]ommitments to provide community benefits often go unfulfilled. Difficulties in monitoring and enforcement are a widespread problem.”

But in Somerville, the CBA or CBAs (there may be more than one) will be between US2 and the City of Somerville, not community groups.

Officials will take into account recommendations from the Union Square Civic Advisory Committee (CAC), a City Hall-appointed group, according Director of Economic Development Ed O’Donnell explained. 

“The city wants to take dialogue, discussion, and ideas from everyone, but at the end of the day we will look to the CAC as the voice of the community to try to formulate their recommendations,” O’Donnell told SNN. “At the end of the day, again, it will be a formal agreement between the master developer and the City.” 

Union United, a coalition of community groups, neighbors and non-profits, spearheaded by the Somerville Community Corporation (SCC), is not happy about the arrangement. In letters to the city’s newspapers and at meetings, Union United members have repeatedly asked to be part of the negotiations.

At a January 14th meeting of the CAC, Union United member Benny Wheat asked Mayor Joseph A. Curtatone about who sets community benefits priorities related to the amount of affordable housing and other issues.

“Community members can say lots of things, and that’s exciting,” Wheat said. “[But] how do you sift through to find what the priorities are, and how is the developer then going to be held accountable to represent those priorities?”

“The community will give input when the process matures enough that we lend to ourselves to the Community Benefits Agreement,” Curtatone responded, but didn’t give details on how much power community groups would actually have, nor about who would hold the developer accountable.

Union United remains concerned that neighbors, small businesses, nonprofits, and others in the city won’t have a chance to give input that is taken into account, and that they won’t be able to assure that the agreement is respected. 

“Union United wants the community to be at the table and to hold the developers accountable for the decisions made at the table,” Van Hardy, vice president of the SCC board and an active member of Union United, explained to SNN. “Union United doesn’t want to be presented with a finalized plan and then asked to accept or not to accept.” 

At the January 14 meeting, which ran two hours but which allowed only about 30 minutes for questions from the public, Union United members also pressed the CAC on the issue. CAC Co-chair Anne Tate responded by urging Union United to try to get a seat on the CAC, which currently has a few openings.  

Hardy told SNN that he is also worried about the timing for CBA negotiations. 

“We’ve been hearing from members of the CAC and the City that they want to hold off on a CBA until the plans are already developed, which is closing the door after the horse has left the barn,” he said.

O’Donnell confirmed that the first CBA for Union Square isn’t on the agenda just yet.

In March, US2 will propose “preliminary plans and design concepts” for the first two parcels to be developed, near the future Green Line station, according to O’Donnell. Only then, will the CBA or CBAs related to those parcels be discussed.

“Beginning in the summertime you’ll begin to see some concrete negotiations as to what should be in the agreement,” he explained.

Whether or not that’s too late is difficult to determine, but community advocates agree that CBAs should be negotiated as early as possible.

“Because a CBA does require the community to give something, which is support during the permitting processes, it’s really important that CBAs are agreed to before those approvals are made because that’s when the community actually has leverage,” Loh noted.

Note: There are a few spots open on the CAC. Interested parties need to apply by February 5th. Find out more here – http://www.somervillema.gov/news/new-members-sought-union-sq-civic-advisory-committee 

A version of this story appeared in the Somerville Journal.