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How to get real Community Benefits Agreements? Depends on who you ask

St. Louis City Hall
Rici Hoffarth | St. Louis Public Radio
St. Louis City Hall

It’s the chicken or the egg argument.

Should city aldermen meet with stakeholders and then craft a bill? Or should the bill be proposed and then brought to the public for input?

St. Louis Alderwoman Megan Green, 15th Ward, prefers the first approach when it comes to developing Community Benefits Agreements legislation.

CBAs, as they’re called, require developers to meet with neighborhood organizations and hammer out tangible benefits for residents who live near a project, such as jobs or affordable housing, before they can get tax incentives. For months, Green has been meeting with activists, law students, other aldermen and officials with the St. Louis Development Corporation to work on a bill.

“Our hope is to have something ready to introduce in September, because we wanted to make sure that we went through the process of bringing together all of the stakeholders together to the table before introducing something,” Green said.

But, earlier this month, Board President Lewis Reed introduced his own bill.

Reed insists it’s better to put the legislation forward first, then get input.

“We did it with the Civilian Oversight bill. We introduced the legislation and then we’d hold public hearings, because then we empower the board and we have something up for discussion,” he said. “So we will be having these discussions all throughout the year; all throughout the session.”

The board president said his staff has taken the discussion on Community Benefits Agreements to the social media site, Nextdoor, and is reaching out to groups across the city, such as the Clergy Coalition and the Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, a prominent African-American women’s group.

Just what are Community Benefits Agreements?

Reed’s bill requires real estate developers to negotiate a Community Benefits Agreement with an alderman. That agreement must be in place before a bill is introduced seeking any kind of tax increment financing or tax rebate for a project.

But recent Washington University law graduate Lauren Verseman said that’s not how it’s supposed to work.

“I think there’s a temptation to jump over the community element just to try to identify the benefits,” she said, “but that misses the procedural benefit of a Community Benefits Agreement, which is getting the community a seat at the table and defining what benefits they’d actually like to see.”

Verseman did a report on CBAsin her last semester at the law school’s newly formed Urban Revitalization Clinic. She said the clinic was first approached by the St. Louis Development Corporation about what other cities have done and the possibility of creating a framework in St. Louis. (Later, Verseman said, Green became involved in meetings with the students and SLDC.)

“Some cities — Detroit in particular, just did this in the fall — are working on creating more of a formal framework, an ordinance, that would require a Community Benefits Agreement for projects of a certain size,” Verseman said.

But there was also a good deal of controversy in Detroit over competing CBA measures.

“Déjà vu”

One St. Louis community group, Northside Neighbors United, kept a close eye on what was happening in Detroit.

The group formed after the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency announced it would build a $1.75 billion facility in north St. Louis.

Megan Betts lives in the St. Louis Place neighborhood and is a former candidate for 5th Ward alderman. She  said she and her neighbors were concerned about residents being forced out.

“A group of us starting meeting and, based on our research, we found Community Benefits Agreements would be a good way to prevent further displacement in the neighborhood and where residents would have a say in what further development comes in,” Betts said.

The group watched with interest as two competing versions of CBA legislation went before Detroit voters; one put forward by a grassroots organization and the other by the City Council. The city’s version, Prop B, passed in November.

Northside Neighbors United, along with other groups, have invited one of the members of the Detroit grassroots effort, former Michigan Rep. Rashida Tlaib, to speak in St. Louis at an event June 1.

Tlaib said she’s been keeping tabs on what’s happening in St. Louis.

“It’s like déjà vu,” she said.

The Democrat said legislation that was crafted after two years of meeting with community groups was sabotaged by competing legislation.

“I call it the fake CBA movement, where they call it a Community Benefits process, but there’s not actually any community engagement, nor the most important principal of a CBA, that it’s legally enforceable,” Tlaib said.

She said the effort in Detroit continues to get a meaningful CBA law in place, something she hopes will come about in St. Louis more easily.

Going forward

For his part, the board president said he expects his CBA bill will look dramatically different as it progresses through the board.

“It is absolutely childish to take a look at this thing from a 'me' standpoint,” he said. “This has to be about change.”

Reed said he had already reached out to Green and other aldermen regarding his legislation, as well as other stakeholders.

Green told St. Louis Public Radio she hasn’t gotten any such invitation.

Correction: The story incorrectly stated that Alderman Megan Green could not introduce legislation because a similar bill had already been introduced. The Board of Aldermen's rules do not appear to contain that stipulation.

Follow Maria on Twitter: @radioaltman

Maria is the newscast, business and education editor for St. Louis Public Radio.