SOUTH CHICAGO — Neighbors who want to secure benefits from developments in their communities — and ensure they aren’t pushed out by progress — can learn more about how to do so thanks to a South Side media nonprofit’s self-published guide.
“Will That New Development Benefit Your Community?” is a 32-page zine from Bronzeville-based journalism lab City Bureau. It’s billed as “a people’s guide to community benefits agreements” and other methods that ensure developers meet residents’ needs as major projects are built.
Community benefits agreements, or CBAs, are legally binding contracts with developers, said Amalia NietoGomez, executive director of Alliance of the Southeast and an organizer with the Coalition for a South Works CBA.
The zine outlines the basics of drafting, securing and enforcing a community benefits agreement; key players in the city’s approval process for projects; alternatives to community benefits agreements that can achieve the community’s goals; and new policies and proposals that could lead to more equitable developments across Chicago, among other topics.
“Everyone else gets a written agreement” around developments, “so communities should get one too,” NietoGomez said at the zine’s launch event Tuesday. “The unions got their written agreement, the city has a written agreement, the developer has a written agreement with the general contractors — this is our written agreement for what we want.”
The zine was borne out of interviews City Bureau fellows did with Garfield Park residents who “felt left out of The Hatchery Chicago development process,” special projects manager Sarah Conway wrote in a blog post earlier this month.
The interviews called into question “who gets to have input when a big developer moves into the neighborhood,” Conway said.
“While we went into the reporting topic with the goal to produce a story, we realized over time that what people need is information on the often complicated and inaccessible development process in the city of Chicago,” Conway said.
South Side activists joined legal and policy experts for a panel discussion about community input on developments at Tuesday’s launch, coinciding with City Bureau’s monthly public newsrooms.
Panelists discussed residents’ recent successes in securing community benefits — from housing protections in Woodlawn ahead of the Obama Presidential Center’s opening, to the Southeast Side’s good neighbor policy, which provides an outline of the community’s priorities in community benefits agreement negotiations with developers.
Community benefits agreements, which are signed directly with developers, can be a crucial tool as residents are often shut out of official development processes, panelists said.
This was the case with the MAT Asphalt plant in McKinley Park, which opened in 2018 though neither the company nor public officials alerted neighbors or held public hearings.
Outraged residents found out MAT Asphalt “didn’t actually have to get any substantial zoning changes in order to put this thing there,” said Anthony Moser, a McKinley Park resident and organizer with Neighbors for Environmental Justice.
“The fact that we’re still just rolling along with that and being like, ‘Well, it was zoned that way, so I guess we have to accept it,’ is problematic to say the least.”
When developers aren’t willing to seek public input or sign community benefits agreements, alternatives may be necessary — as was the case when then-President Barack Obama rejected calls to sign an agreement after announcing his center would be built in Jackson Park.
With no chance of an agreement with the Obama Foundation, South Side residents near the Obama Center site shifted to pursuing a city ordinance, said Dixon Romeo, an organizer with Not Me We and the Obama CBA Coalition.
That work culminated in the 2020 Woodlawn housing preservation ordinance. Neighbors are now working on a set of housing demands for South Shore.
But community benefits agreements and laws like the Woodlawn housing ordinance are usually narrow, focusing on a single development or issue, panelists said.
Policy updates can take a big-picture approach to helping neighbors across Chicago lead their communities’ development, they said.
Those policy changes shouldn’t start from scratch, Cliff Helm said. He’s worked with community groups on community benefits agreements as a lawyer with the Chicago Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights.
As the city pursues planning initiatives like We Will Chicago and promises to promote equitable development after denying Southside Recycling’s permit to open on the Southeast Side, officials must draw on the work community benefits agreement coalitions and community groups have already done for years, Helm said.
“What examples are they drawing from to set their new policies?” Helm said. “How are they learning from … what we’ve done and what we’ve seen, and can those be incorporated in what happens next, so we don’t have to keep doing them over and over again? Hopefully the answer is yes.”
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