Spring Creek Builder's Promises Spur Cheers, Jeers

Photo by: Abigail Savitch-Lew
Construction workers with Andre Mitchell, in white shirt, the executive director of Man Up! and lead negotiator of the Community Benefits Agreement for Gateway II.

An extensive community benefits agreement between the developer of the Gateway II project is hailed by many. But some community groups feel left out.

By: Abigail Savitch-Lew

Andre Mitchell remembers the days when Spring Creek between Schenck Avenue and Fountain Avenue was a wasteland.

It was where the kids who couldn't afford summer camp went to play. Mitchell, one of eight children to a single mother in public housing, would ride his bike there, past the marshland and piles of illegally dumped trash.

Now the founder and director of Man Up!, an organization that seeks to empower young people and stop street violence, Mitchell sits in a new office on a new street in the middle of the former dump.

The office opened in May and belongs to East New York Restoration Local Development Corporation, where Mitchell is board chairman. The organization was created to oversee the fulfillment of a $3 million Community Benefits Agreement (CBA) negotiated four years ago with the developer of the Gateway Phase II project, Related Companies.

The CBA has become the subject of a contentious debate among community groups and City Council candidates. While supporters say the CBA will help East New York residents take advantage of the area's transformation, critics say too few community groups were included in the negotiations or stand to benefit from the agreement.

A second 'Gateway'

Gateway Phase II is a development project on the land south of Flatlands Avenue and north of Related's presently existing Gateway Mall. The project includes a new school campus opened last year, more than 600,000 square feet of retail space to be completed by the fall of 2014, over 2,200 units of affordable housing completed or under construction, a day care, new parkland, a bus station, and additional infrastructure. The mall expansion alone will generate 800 construction jobs and 1500 permanent retail jobs, says Joanna Rose of Related Companies.

The project follows the completion of the Gateway I mall in 2002, the same year Councilman Charles Barron took office. Barron says that Gateway I, while successful, provided fewer jobs than the community had originally expected and did not empower local business people, motivating him to pursue new forms of engagement with the developers.
"With these kinds of things, this is not economic development sometimes. It's economic exploitation," he says. "You got to sit out and say, are there going to be temporary jobs or are there going to be permanent jobs. And we want to know how many permanent jobs are there going to be....There are so many things you need to think about."

Barron negotiated with HPD to ensure the housing was rented or sold at affordable rates. (John Whitehead, a community board member and City Council candidate, says that credit also goes to East Brooklyn Congregation's Nehemiah Housing Development Fund Company, which is committed to building low-income housing.)

Barron says he also recommended that Related negotiate a CBA with the community and suggested they contact Mitchell.

The CBA movement

A CBA is a deal negotiated between a developer and community stakeholders that sets out how a community stands to benefit from a development project. Agreements often include stipulations for hiring women, minorities or local residents, requirements for jobs with a living wage, open space, environmental remediation, affordable housing, or funds for community programming.

The first widely cited instance of a CBA, in 2001, involved a coalition of over 29 groups negotiating with the developer of a sports and entertainment center in Los Angeles.   Since then, CBAs have become popular throughout the country as a means of holding developers accountable to their promises. Developers have also used CBAs to win community support.

Forest City Ratner Companies' Atlantic Yards, Yankee Stadium, and Related Companies' Bronx Gateway Center have all involved controversial CBAs, with critics alleging that the groups involved in the CBA are not legitimate representatives of the community, or that the agreement is improperly enforced.

The CBA in Spring Creek was signed the same year City Council approved the Gateway Phase II project, but Barron and Related Companies say that Barron's approval of the project was not connected to the CBA. Related says it was interested in engaging in a CBA to meet its own corporate responsibility goals.

"We are proud to support job training, first source local recruiting efforts, and efforts to encourage the participation of [Minority, Women, and Local Business Enterprise] goals at Gateway Center and look forward to working with multiple community-based organizations to ensure broad based participation by the community in the process," said Rose in a statement.

After he was approached by Related, Mitchell says he formed a coalition with organizations like Big Apple Sports, Motivating Minds Day Care Centers, Masterpiece Theatres, and two local business leaders. Once the agreement was signed, they made further amendments after inviting input from Senator John Sampson, Sherry Roberts at the Local Development Corporation of East New York and community board member Carolyn Walker-Diallo from the George Walker Foundation.

The $3 million agreement will be used by Restoration LDC to facilitate a job training program run by Man Up! that will make direct referrals to the construction site and to retail businesses in the development. It will also be used to host business training workshops for entrepreneurs, provide small businesses with office space and resources, bring local businesses into the development, host community events, provide non-profits with small grants (right now, no more than $2,000 per recipient), and cover operating costs, says Melinda Perkins, associate executive director of Restoration LDC.

The agreement also details environmental sustainability projects and sets goals for the developer, willing retail tenants, and contractors to hire 25 percent of its workers and 15 percent of retail managerial staff from the local area. It also sets goals to reward 25 percent of construction contracts and 35 percent of post-construction service contracts to minority, women, or local business enterprises.

While the hiring goals are not binding, the agreement states that if the developer fails to carry out a material portion of the agreement, the coalition can pursue legal recourses.

Community groups allege exclusion

But some local organizations and members of the community board say the CBA should have been negotiated with more groups involved and that creating a new non-profit was a waste of funds.

"Why didn't the community board, which is the eyes and ears of the community, not hear anything about it?" says Dennis Taylor, a member of the community board and the executive director of The Sabaoth Group, a faith-based nonprofit that provides tenant services.

Taylor says that last summer, a coalition of twelve nonprofits including The Sabaoth Group, Empowering Youth, United Concerned Citizens, and others met with Related Companies to express their concerns.

"Our coalition was representative of the community," says Taylor. "We understand that they have a contract with A.T. Mitchell, but we wanted to include all the service providers into the full of this thing and we thought the Related Company said they liked what we presented."

Later they received word that Related would be unable to work with them because the company had to fulfill their contract to Mitchell, Taylor says, adding that he hopes there will be opportunities to renegotiate.

City Council candidates Christopher Banks and John Whitehead, who are running to succeed the term-limited Barron (whose wife is also vying for the seat) also expressed disapproval of the negotiation process.

"I'm happy for [Man Up!]. I'm happy they got it. But don't call it a Community Benefits Agreement. Call it a My Organization Benefits Agreement," Whitehead says. "Everybody should have been privy to whatever negotiation took place."

Several community members have criticized Barron for his strong support of Mitchell's organization Man Up!. Last year Barron gave Man Up! $118,800 in discretionary funds, but none of his other 32 non-profit recipients received more than $28,000.

But Mitchell defended his organization's leadership on the CBA. "[Barron] wanted to make sure that it was an organization that has a history and track record of looking out for the community, not just one that is looking out for itself," he says, adding that there were several groups involved in the CBA but "realistically, we could not invite everyone into the room."

Bill Wilkins of LDCENY says Roberts attended a couple meetings related to the negotiations of the Community Benefits Agreements but has not been at any board meetings. "There wasn't a lot of notice given for meetings taking place," he says, adding that he thought more collaboration would be beneficial, because ENYLDC has experience promoting economic development and hosting business trainings.

No wage mandate

The negotiations with Related lasted more than four months, and the agreement that came out of it did not include their original demands for a multipurpose center, a restoration plaza, and an amphitheater, but did look something like the agreement negotiated for the Bronx Gateway Center, with similar local hiring goals and amounts of community funding. (The Bronx Gateway Center CBA included an additional $75,000 for legal fees to enforce the agreement.) .

The Bronx Gateway Center CBA included a ban against Walmart, but the Spring Creek negotiators were not in agreement as to whether or not to oppose Wallmart and did not include a ban. Related still took Walmart off the table last September following a loud outcry from community board members and elected officials.

During the negotiation process, the coalition met with Kingsbridge Armory Redevelopment Alliance, a coalition of groups that was simultaneously negotiating a CBA with Related Companies for a mall at the Kingsbridge Armory in the Bronx, and the Alliance encouraged the Spring Creek coalition to ask Related for living wage jobs. (Related Companies refused to agree to the Kingsbridge CBA, and the City Council blocked Related's proposed development of the Armory in December 2009. A new ice-center project, accompanied by an extensive CBA that includes a living wage and an array of other benefits, is now proposed for the site.)

Mitchell said that although he liked the idea of living wage employment, he felt they were too far forward in negotiations to propose a living wage mandate in their own CBA. "Did we get everything out of it that we think that we could have gotten? No," Mitchell says candidly.

But he and Perkins say they hope to continue building on their partnership with the developers to increase the community's benefits.

A new Spring Creek?

On a Tuesday afternoon, 20-year-old Sean Crosby and his fellow construction workers are wiping sweat from their brow as they cross Elton Street on their way home to East New York.

The brand new street is as quiet as a model city. There's a freshly painted playground but few children at play. There are solar panels on the roof—according to the city, the largest solar energy system on any residential development in the state of New York.

So far, only two storefronts are open: East New York Restoration LDC and Brooklyn's Finest Barbershop. The street will soon be home to local businesses like Burgey Urway and Nonno's Focacceria and the social service organization Urban Strategies, Inc.

Crosby says he was referred to his new job through Man Up! and is enthusiastic about the opportunity.

"When I leave this place, I go home. I don't hang out on the streets," he says. A shooting took place near home next to George Gershwin Park that morning, but thankfully he was at work.

"I go play basketball. That's my park. I would have been walking by."