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Community Benefits Agreement: An Overview

by Sonya Jongsma Knauss

It sounds simple, doesn’t it? Either you are for or against benefits to the community. While it isn’t quite that simple, an ordinance that’s been shuttled around City Hall for a few months is based on a relatively simple premise: that when the city sells public land or uses public money to subsidize a development, there should be some kind of public benefit. The sticky part is who will benefit and how much, who will measure and oversee it, and how it could impact development in the recently-opened land that used to be overshadowed by the now-defunct Park East Freeway. The city owns four acres of the land and the county owns 16 acres. Former Milwaukee planning director Peter Park came up with a plan for the entire area that faced little opposition but that some have asserted is not sufficiently creative in proving green amenities for city residents. What some aldermen, members of the Good Jobs and Livable Neighborhoods Coalition, and others are pushing for is the passage of an ordinance in conjunction with the development plan that would set standards for contractors’ wages, require affordable housing set-asides (or an optional donation to a city fund that would promote affordable housing), and encourage local hiring. In her comments on the ordinance at a Steering and Rules Committee meeting January 8, Kathleen Mulligan-Hansel, co-chair of the coalition, says the agreement aims to set “clear and measurable mechanisms for ‘what is a public benefit?'” Mulligan-Hansel and others spoke in support of the ordinance, saying its intent was to find ways to use positive development in the city to help alleviate poverty in other parts of the city. The Department of City Development (DCD) opposes the ordinance, asserting it will hamper development downtown. Comments from developers at committee hearings were in a similar vein. Developer Barry Mandel spoke several times during the committee hearing on the issue, asserting that “(passing development-related) mandates today is a vote for suburban development tomorrow.” Additionally, he argued that using the standard of a “living wage” (traditionally about $10-$15 per hour) instead of “prevailing wage” (a state-set industry standard ranging from $26-$52/hour) would be a more than adequate benchmark for the benefits agreement. Ald. Mike D’Amato, lead sponsor of the legislation, was quick to disagree. “When my epitaph is written I hope it’s said that I went down demanding high standards rather than low standards,” D’Amato shot back. After hours of testimony and discussion, the ordinance was passed on a 5-3 vote. Both D’Amato and Ald. Marlene Johnson-Odom voted in favor of the ordinance, but the Common Council sent it back to committee at its January 21 meeting. At that meeting, D’Amato moved that the Park East Redevelopment Plan be sent back to the same committee so it could be considered in conjunction with the Community Benefits Agreement. That motion was unanimously approved. The Steering and Rules Committee will likely take up the issue in a February meeting; a date had not been set before Riverwest Currents went to press.
by Sonya Jongsma Knauss