Black developers increase community needs in big projects

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For decades, multibillion-dollar projects across the United States have sought to create new downtown neighborhoods, often by reimagining underused assets, like disused factories or rail yards. In recent years, a new generation of projects has offered the same broad reach, but with leadership that reflects the community.

A new generation of black developers believe their perspectives will lead to an overhaul of large parts of American cities by focusing on how their deals will benefit underserved communities.

“These agreements represented a sea change in power relations, taking power away from elected officials and developers and giving communities of color the ability to shape projects, enforce promises and oversee benefits they wanted,” said Ben Beach, legal director of PowerSwitch Action, which works with communities to negotiate these agreements.

Having a diverse management team can help increase community investment, said Gregory Reaves, co-founder of Black-owned Mosaic Development Partners, whose 109-acre Navy Yard redevelopment in Philadelphia includes a $1 billion commitment. for diversity and inclusion, focusing on opportunities for businesses owned by women, members of minority groups, veterans and people with disabilities.

Other megaprojects include the $3.8 billion Bronzeville Lakefront project in Chicago and the proposed Affirmation Tower in Manhattan by developer Don Peebles and architect David Adjaye. A number of other large-scale projects across the country are being negotiated that would benefit minority neighborhoods, including a $12 billion waterfront stadium development in Oakland, Calif., and the site of the 43-acre Carousel Mall in downtown San Bernardino, California.

But these community-driven deals tend to be informal agreements, rather than well-regulated efforts, critics say. Many community groups, researchers and even developers say they are running out of teeth and throwing small grants at neighborhoods instead of truly sharing the wealth. Projects can span a decade, making it difficult to maintain oversight by community leaders and transparency over the life of the project, which is important to ensure initial promises are kept.

The agreement signed for the redevelopment of the Staples Center in downtown Los Angeles in 2001 is considered one of the first such pacts, as well as a model of success that has been emulated over time, a said Tonya Myers Phillips, director of community partnerships at the Sugar Law Center. in Detroit, which has compiled an online database of more than 300 such agreements.

Instead of simply offering land to developers, in the hope that new jobs and estimated tax revenue would mean growth instead of displacement, the deal with Staples included job and wage guarantees and promises of specific community benefits. It also provided community control over commercial tenants who might operate in the new development.

But enforcement methods can differ dramatically, and critics argue that many agreements are vague, lack democratic decision-making and feature terms that are neither measurable nor enforceable.

Mr. Beach points to the shortcomings of two agreements as examples of the problems. During the development of Yankee Stadium in New York, local officials, not community groups, led the negotiations, and the investment fund required by the deal was managed by a Yankees-controlled charity that often sent money in other parts of the Bronx. And in Florida, the Miami WorldCenter initially had vague terminology regarding local hiring and salary promises, and developers did not consult with community groups or fund job training programs, according to academic analysis.

There is only one true measure of success, Ms Phillips said: “Has it really made a difference in people’s lives? »

For Kimshasa Baldwin, an architect in Chicago, news that the city was planning to sell the former Michael Reese Hospital campus, a 48-acre lakefront site, represented a once-in-a-generation opportunity.

The old campus was a longtime part of the Bronzeville community, a black enclave rich in cultural history that has seen decades of divestment. After its closure in 2009, the site was unsuccessfully touted as a potential Olympic village or second Amazon headquarters.

This presented Ms. Baldwin with a compelling opportunity to reshape her neighborhood.

In 2017, she became a member of the Michael Reese Advisory Council, a 29-member group of neighborhood experts including lawyers, pastors and historians, brought together by local alderwoman Sophia King. The group provided the community contribution to the $3.8 billion project, which the city awarded to Global Research Innovation Technology, a business coalition where black developers hold half of the leadership roles.

“Development is usually done in a way that developers take resources from the community,” said Ms. King, who has seen how other megaprojects in Chicago, including Lincoln Yards and the Obama Presidential Library, have sparked criticism from community members. She wanted this project to be different and lobbied for the advisory board to give the community a seat at the table.

“The community is generally seen as not only being somehow stripped of its resources, but almost in a worse position,” she said.

The advisory council illustrates how development agreements are moving towards promises of more local power and shared economic benefits. The shift comes as the real estate industry slowly evolves from a sector dominated by white men: People of color held about 13% of leadership positions in commercial real estate in 2021, an improvement of 1.4% from to the previous year, according to an analysis by Bisnow. , an industry media and event platform.

Community groups say they have learned lessons from past projects.

Victor B. MacFarlane, chairman and CEO of MacFarlane Partners, one of the nation’s largest black-owned development firms, points to the hiring guarantees often written into these agreements. In the past, developments could have mandated the hiring of 10% minorities; recent projects promise a 30% rate, meaning hundreds of millions of additional dollars will go to businesses owned by women and entrepreneurs of color.

In Chicago, the redevelopment of the Michael Reese Hospital campus, now called Bronzeville Lakefront, is committed to a diverse workforce at every stage of the project, said advisory board member Tracey Bey. The developers signed a binding agreement, promising to spend $10 million on a museum and visitor center; spending $25 million to upgrade local educational institutions; ensure that 20% of the housing on site will be affordable; and achieve guarantees on apprenticeships, retail support, diverse hiring and job creation.

Ms. Baldwin brought 25 years of industry experience to contribute to discussions of community benefits and design standards. “We know how it goes – you can get things in writing from the devs, but once you build things start shifting and pivoting,” she said.

She thinks the GRIT partners have been responsive, especially to requests to build substantial affordable housing on the site instead of just nearby. Quarterly board meetings will be held to check on progress, with members focusing on holding developers accountable.

“The engagement model had never been done,” said Morgan Malone, project director and co-lead for Bronzeville Lakefront. “Normally, it is a few town halls run by your alderman. We met weekly for eight months to negotiate this.

In Philadelphia, the Mosaic team sees its role as an incubator for the Navy Yard project, which will feature a mix of housing, retail and even life science labs to tap into the city’s biotech industry. Strict hiring targets, from architectural firms to materials suppliers, are intended to support minority businesses.

A minimum of 35% of the work has been set aside for various businesses, allowing minority-run businesses to partner on larger projects than in the past, said Curt Moody, founder of Moody Nolan, the largest consulting firm. black-owned architecture in the country. , which is designing a major residential part of the project.

For the Chicago and Philadelphia projects, developers pushed to add more local investment. Mosaic has created a crowdfunding program so local entrepreneurs can invest in the Navy Yard project, which has already raised $2.7 million, and GRIT in Chicago is looking to invest and support local businesses.

The stakes in these kinds of negotiations have become even higher, Beach said, adding that local governments are getting more involved.

“Land is political, economic and spatial power – the power to shape your neighborhood,” he said. “Having people of color involved in every aspect of the project is very important, but we want people of color to benefit at every level of the project.”

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