Rebuilding Place in the Urban Space

"A community’s physical form, rather than its land uses, is its most intrinsic and enduring characteristic." [Katz, EPA] This blog focuses on place and placemaking and all that makes it work--historic preservation, urban design, transportation, asset-based community development, arts & cultural development, commercial district revitalization, tourism & destination development, and quality of life advocacy--along with doses of civic engagement and good governance watchdogging.

Sunday, December 05, 2010

Not understanding what triggers a community benefits process

Most people don't really understand how the land use and planning process works, and how it is designed for the most part to streamline development while allowing for some review and limits on potential negatives, because some property owners, without review, take things to extremes.

Today's Post has a piece, "Welcoming Wal-Mart - on our terms," by a pastor about why Walmart should engage in a community benefits negotiation process with regard to their entry into the DC market, using as an example the Community Benefits Agreement that was negotiated by Walmart in Chicago, to ease their entry into that market.

But the piece fails to acknowledge that CB Agreements are always about leverage, they are never provided because of good heartedness.

Leverage for the government and/or other stakeholders and citizens comes in one of two ways. First, there can be a demand for benefits on the part of either or both the developer or the tenant(s), either zoning (variances, changes, exceptions, density increases, planned unit development processes), tax abatements and other forms of tax-related assistance, land acquisition assistance (including free land in some cases), infrastructure improvements, labor assistance programs, etc.

To the best of my knowledge, none of these types of benefits are being requested with regard to the proposed Walmart locations in DC.

Second, if a community has additional review procedures in place that are triggered by the size and/or type of the use. (DC has what is called a "large tract review" process for large developments, but it doesn't trigger community benefits requirements or supra-special review, just ensures a more careful look at broader planning with regard to the site.)

DC doesn't really have such procedures, although other communities do, to deal with this exact kind of issue.

Chicago is a semi-unique example of lack of due process, as Aldermen have a disproportionate ability to impact the development approval process in their districts. But even so, according to this article from Labor Notes, "Wal-Mart Outmaneuvers Unions To Win Approval for Chicago Store," the community benefits agreement came about only because some of the sites Walmart intends to build stores on are in economic renewal zones, which are special tax districts, and therefore subject to additional review. According to the article:

Wal-Mart outmaneuvered union and community forces in Chicago to win city council approval July 7 for the discount chain’s second store in the city.

The Chicago Federation of Labor and the Food and Commercial Workers claimed victory, however, saying they’d negotiated a “community benefits agreement” that commits the company to use union members to build the store and to pay an $8.75 an hour starting wage, 50 cents higher than the state minimum.

Wal-Mart denies that a wage promise was struck. The agreement doesn’t specify a rate, simply stating that workers will receive “competitive market salaries” and a “comprehensive benefits package.”

Just to make sure, the company also granted itself a giant loophole. “Any term or agreement in this document is subject and contingent upon business conditions,” the deal concludes.

Even if the agreement comes into effect, its terms are far softer than the demands put forward since January by Good Jobs Chicago, a coalition anchored by the Service Employees, several congregations, and the Grassroots Collaborative, a community group instrumental in living wage fights in the city.

That group had pushed the city council, unsuccessfully, to enact a law this spring that would make employers pay $11 an hour with benefits when they draw on public subsidies. (Wal-Mart is expected to locate in one of the city’s many tax-favored districts.) Similar legislation aimed at “big box” retail stores was vetoed by Mayor Richard M. Daley in 2006, the only measure he’s struck down in his 21 years in office.

Things could be done in DC, but it would take stepping up the involvement by the City Government, especially the Mayor and the City Council. Otherwise, the planners just follow the procedures.


-- Community Benefits Agreement blog
-- HERCULES / Vote goes against Wal-Mart / Council OKs using eminent domain to block retailer" from the San Francisco Chronicle
-- report from Eugene, Oregon on Big Box Stores, and why additional levels of zoning review for such projects are good public policy

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