City Residents Deserve a Community Benefits Agreement

by Kathleen Mulligan-Hansel

For over a year, a coalition of Milwaukee organizations — including labor unions, faith-based organizations, research and advocacy groups, and community organizations — has been organizing to include a Community Benefits Agreement (CBA) in the redevelopment of the former Park East corridor. Influenced by similar agreements negotiated by coalitions in Los Angeles, the Good Jobs and Livable Neighborhoods coalition wants to ensure that the considerable investment poised to flow into downtown development creates tangible improvements in other parts of the city. The proposed CBA would require developers that receive public subsidies or build on public land to invest in the human side of development. The CBA envisioned for the Park East outlines a series of goals regarding job quality, local hiring, and affordable housing. The agreement also would require the Common Council to produce an annual report detailing progress toward these goals. Implementation of the agreement would create in the footprint of the Park East Freeway a racially and economically integrated development that offers good jobs to residents of the City. Volumes of research attest to the need for these standards. Segregation in Milwaukee is among the most profound of any urban area in the nation, and despite economic growth in the 1990s, the City had a net loss of 1200 jobs. The poverty and unemployment that are linked to patterns of segregation result in problems that plague all our neighborhoods. Opponents of the CBA claim that the market system is working and that imposing standards on development will undermine the fragile downtown development markets. This argument is disingenuous at best and an outright falsehood at worst. Hardly a building has been built downtown in the past decade without substantial subsidy from the city. If those buildings would not be viable without financial assistance, then development is not being driven by the market, but by the priorities set by city government. When we use taxpayer money to initiate development, we should not be shy about demanding that good jobs and livable neighborhoods are one tangible result. Directly adjacent to the Park East area, WisPark LLC is designing another high-profile downtown development, Pabst City. Key players are now negotiating a Project Labor Agreement for that development, which means the labor will be performed exclusively by union contractors. This is a much higher standard than any of the provisions in the Park East CBA. If Pabst City can be built under such conditions without undermining its competitiveness in the market, why not the Park East? The City’s “If we build it, they will come” strategy for downtown prioritizes the demands of upper-class families who currently live in the suburbs over the needs of current city residents. Former Mayor Norquist advocated building high-end luxury condos and creating an expensive downtown entertainment sector in order to woo upper-income taxpayers back to the city. While more rich taxpayers might indeed improve the tax base, development strategy that uses the hard-earned money of current city taxpayers should have elements that benefit the primarily lower-income families who live in the city now. The mechanisms in the proposed CBA are well known to work. Where they have been implemented, they have improved job opportunities for low-income city residents and people of color. A notable example can be found in the construction of Miller Park, where partnerships among unions, community groups and local government led to substantial employment gains for these groups. The coalition is asking that this strategy be applied consistently whenever development requires financial assistance from the City. Much is at stake for City residents in this debate: without development that improves all neighborhoods in the city, every neighborhood will be affected by widespread poverty and unemployment. The Common Council should approve the Park East Community Benefits Ordinance, and take a stand in favor of development for all communities in Milwaukee. Kathleen Mulligan-Hansel, Ph.D., is a Riverwest resident and director of the Working Families Project at the Institute for Wisconsin’s Future. She is also co-chair of the Good Jobs and Livable Neighborhoods Coalition.

Kathleen Mulligan-Hansel, Ph.D., is a Riverwest resident and director of the Working Families Project at the Institute for Wisconsin’s Future. She is also co-chair of the Good Jobs and Livable Neighborhoods Coalition.