From left, Morgan Malone, a project executive; Sophia King, an alderman; and Kimshasa Baldwin, an architect, contributed to a new development in the Bronzeville neighborhood of Chicago.Credit…Akilah Townsend for The New York Times
For decades, multibillion-dollar projects across the United States sought to create new downtown neighborhoods, often by reimagining underused assets, like defunct factories or rail yards. In recent years, a new crop of projects has offered the same expansive scope, but with leadership that mirrors the community.
A new generation of Black developers believes that their perspectives will lead to a reshaping of large sections of American cities by focusing on how their deals will benefit underserved communities.
“These agreements represented a radical shift in power relations, taking power from elected officials and developers and giving communities of color the ability to shape projects, enforce promises and oversee the benefits they wanted,” said Ben Beach, legal director for PowerSwitch Action, which works with communities to negotiate these deals.
Having a diverse leadership team can help expand investment in the community, said Gregory Reaves, a co-founder of Black-owned Mosaic Development Partners, whose redevelopment of 109 acres of the Navy Yard in Philadelphia includes a $1 billion pledge for diversity and inclusion, focused 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 the developer Don Peebles and the architect David Adjaye. A number of other large-scale projects across the country are undergoing negotiations that would benefit minority neighborhoods, including a $12 billion waterfront stadium development in Oakland, Calif., and the 43-acre Carousel Mall site in downtown San Bernardino, Calif.
But these community-focused deals tend to be informal agreements, rather than well-regulated efforts, critics say. Many community groups, researchers and even developers say they lack teeth and toss small concessions to neighborhoods instead of truly sharing the wealth. Projects can stretch over a decade, making it difficult to maintain oversight by community leaders and transparency for the length of the project, important to ensuring initial promises are kept.
The agreement signed for the Staples Center redevelopment in downtown Los Angeles in 2001 is considered one of the first such compacts, as well as a model of success that has been emulated over time, said Tonya Myers Phillips, community partnerships director at the Sugar Law Center in Detroit, which compiled an online database of 300-plus such agreements.Instead of simply offering land to developers, with hopes that estimated new jobs and tax revenue would mean growth instead of displacement, the Staples deal included hiring and wage guarantees and promises of specific community benefits. It also provided community control of which commercial tenants could operate within the new development.
But the enforcement methods can differ radically, and critics argue that many agreements are vague, lack democratic decision-making and feature terms that are not measurable or enforceable.
Mr. Beach points to shortcomings in two deals 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 agreement was run by a Yankees-controlled charity that often sent money to other parts of the Bronx. And in Florida, the Miami WorldCenter initially had vague terminology around local hiring and wage promises, and developers failed to consult community groups or fund job training programs, according to an academic analysis.
There’s just one true measure of success, Ms. Phillips said: “Did it really make a difference in people’s lives?”