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Community benefits agreements and urban reinvestment

By Adam Blair
August 10, 2010

While a $294.8 million waterfront development in Buffalo, New York is praised by some locals as a silver bullet to the city’s downtown renaissance, a group of concerned citizens is making sure the project proceeds with caution. Wielding a community benefits agreement, this alliance won’t budge until certain conditions are met.

Exhaustive but pragmatic, community benefits agreements (CBA) outline a list of requirements a private developer seeking public funds must meet in order to win support from those residents who will be most affected by new construction. While a CBA might seem like just another hoop for developers to jump through, these agreements may allow for a more seamless process through their insistence on proactive public input.

According to Laura Wolf-Powers, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania, CBAs are becoming more common as reinvestment breathes life into central cities across the U.S., and it is important for planners to be familiar with them. Early forms of a CBA emerged in the late 1990s and 2000s as cities saw a renewal of construction and population growth, and they often reflected the concerns of residents living in economically depressed neighborhoods.

Subsidized urban reinvestment can present unique and painstaking challenges, as it is difficult to tell what benefits justify public subsidy, and, if subsidized, whether taxpayers are seeing a good return on their investment. While residents surrounding new development can be affected by several negative—and traditionally unaccounted for—externalities (i.e., pollution, traffic congestion, housing displacement), some argue that the expanded tax base alone should provide more than enough to please local constituents.

In Buffalo’s case, however, the proposed waterfront plaza—equipped with dining, retail and housing—is funded to a significant degree by taxpayer dollars, and some locals would like to see more than just minimum wage jobs and in an increase in the tax base as a result of the project. Benefits like living wages, green building practices, affordable housing and preference to local businesses are being requested in what has become more common practice in cities across the U.S. CBAs put new development to the test, and Buffalo’s newest waterfront destination could sink or swim as a result.

These situations can become further complicated in regions experiencing population loss, where new development may not generate net economic growth. A shiny, new waterfront might attract waves of tourists to Buffalo as is seen in cities like Baltimore and Austin, Texas, but what could the depressed neighborhoods, which have struggled without adequate investment for decades, look like with a different distribution of that same $294.8 million?

My belief is that Buffalo and other Rust Belt cities like it should invest in the people and neighborhoods that are already there, rather than worrying about the latest and greatest way to use taxpayer dollars to attract out-of-towners. Successful cities are built on strong communities, and if you can lift up many, rather than relying on a single solution, we all will reap greater benefits.

Meyer, B. (2010, March 16). Council seeks guarantee on benefits of Canal Side. The Buffalo News. Retrieved June 4, 2010, from

Sommer, M. (2010, May 14). Development expert urges livable wages. The Buffalo News. Retrieved June 4, 2010, from

Wolf-Powers, L. (2010). Community benefits agreements and local government: A review of recent literature. Journal of the American Planning Association, 76(2), 141-159.