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Community benefits plan debate continues between council and city

Jaymi Butler

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Community benefit agreements create a process that takes into account the social and community impact of a real estate development plan.

City administrators will meet with individual council members in the coming weeks to fine-tune the proposed community benefits agreement that would impact some future development projects, including the Tropicana Field site.

The decision to hold one-on-one meetings was made during a two-and-a-half hour hearing Thursday morning where council members raised questions and concerns about the CBA document, which administration officials say is designed to ensure all parts of the city benefit from development and that the interests of the community are represented.

Alan DeLisle, the city’s development administrator, said that some of the main goals of the CBA are to create more equity and mitigate gentrification while building greater trust and communication between developers, residents and the city.

“I think we all know that the development field has been driven by certain demographics, for the most part,” he told council members, noting that the creation of a CBA has “tremendous” community support. “Community benefits agreements are about making sure that all voices are heard and that all voices receive benefits.”

Under the administration’s plan, which was unveiled at a city council meeting in February and has been subsequently revised based on feedback from council members, CBAs would be triggered for projects that are public-private partnerships under three tiered thresholds: 

  • Tier one – all projects more than $2 million in permit construction value receiving city participation consisting of at least 20 percent of the overall project cost or any new development or redevelopment project that has city participation value equal to or greater than $10 million, regardless of construction cost. 
  • Tier two – all projects more than $4 million in permit construction value receiving city participation consisting of at least 20 percent of the overall project cost or any new development or redevelopment project that has city participation value equal to or greater than $15 million, regardless of construction cost.
  • Tier three – all projects more than $8 million in permit construction value receiving city participation consisting of at least 20 percent of the overall project cost or any new development or redevelopment project that has city participation value equal to or greater than $25 million, regardless of construction cost.

Additionally, project leaders must choose to include at least one of the following options in their development:

  • To meet or exceed LEED Silver Certification 
  • To become a Net Zero Energy Building 
  • To provide a base living wage of $15 per hour with benefits for all permanent employees after the project is completed, while ensuring responsible wages for employees during construction
  • To provide housing subsidies for company’s employees under 100 percent of the average state wage.

Another key component of the plan involves requiring developers to hold meetings in the neighborhoods impacted by their projects to get feedback from residents. It also calls for the creation of a Neighborhood Advisory Council which would conduct its own review of the project. The city and developer would then negotiate a community benefits agreement that could involve direct investment in the neighborhood, such as park improvements, or could be applied citywide, such as contributing to a fund for affordable housing. The city council would have the final say on specific community benefits agreements.

The topic of how the advisory council will be constructed was a point of concern for several council members, including vice chair Gina Driscoll, who worried about the potential lack of representation from people living in neighborhoods that may be impacted by future development.

“If you have an advisory council that’s assembled based on three-year terms, there’s no guarantee that anyone from the affected neighborhood will be at the table as part of that advisory council,” she said. “I think that’s a big missing piece.”

One possible solution, Driscoll said, could be convening a new advisory council based on each project that comes up. 

Council member Darden Rice said that while she has concerns related to the advisory council, she also sees opportunities.

“I would love to see this as part of a more strategic, conscientious effort at public engagement and recruiting and training city leaders, and I’d love to see us get to a point where we could provide some citizen leadership ladder training,” she said. “I’d like this to get away from STP, which is the ‘same 10 people,’ and look at this as an opportunity for more residents to truly engage with the city.”

Council member Brandi Gabbard, a vocal advocate for a CBA for the Trop redevelopment project, challenged DeLisle on the issue of gentrification.

He replied that there’s no way to completely ensure that gentrification won’t happen. However, he’s hopeful that setting up a process that opens up the lines of communication will give residents the ability to communicate with developers to share what they’d like to see in their community.

“The biggest knock on development is when a developer comes in and does a project that doesn’t integrate with the community and therefore drives revenue to the developer but doesn’t help the community,” DeLisle said. “That’s when you have gentrification.”

Gabbard said she’s not 100 percent convinced this approach will work as planned.

“I need to know more,” she said. “When I vote yes on this, I need to know that the goals of the CBA are not just symbolic but they will yield concrete results.”

Echoing his comments at a previous meeting, council member Robert Blackmon wondered if a CBA would burden developers by tasking them with completing projects the city should be handling. 

“Now it’s like we’re passing the bag to developers because we haven’t done any work,” he said, citing the broken sidewalks and butchered palm trees that line 16th Street South as an example.

On a related note, council chair Ed Montanari voiced concerns that the CBA could hinder growth in areas that really need it.

“We have certain parts of our city that seem to be growing very quickly and development is happening, and then we have parts of our city where development is not happening,” he said. “I’m concerned about stifling development in parts of our city where we really need it. Tangerine Plaza comes to mind, and we’ve been trying to get something done there for a long time.”

Rice said she hopes that implementing a CBA will help support continued growth in St. Pete, and that growth will benefit everyone.

“At one point many years ago, St. Pete had an inferiority complex. We were afraid to say no to developers because we were afraid they were going to run away and go someplace easier to do business,” she said. “And now we have good developers who live here who are building things in the community that they live in. We’re attracting world-class developers who maybe don’t live here, along with beautiful designers and great architects. We want to be one of the best cities in the country with one of the best CBAs.”

The CBA will be a topic of discussion at a meeting of the budget, finance and taxation committee next week. Council members also plan to look for ways to solicit feedback from the community before voting on it at a future meeting. 

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