hashim_yeomans-benford_web.jpg(Florida International University) – Community activists in Liberty City and Overtown hope they can still persuade the University of Miami and Miami-Dade County to strike agreements that would guarantee neighborhood residents will directly benefit from two large redevelopment initiatives.

About 75 people gathered at Saint John Institutional Baptist Church in Overtown last week to hear from community leaders from East Baltimore and Harlem who worked on “community benefits agreements” on urban redevelopment projects in their cities.

“We were able to hold [Columbia University] accountable because they hadn't yet worked out the land use agreements with the [New York City] government,” said Cecil Corbin-Mark of West Harlem Environmental Action, which negotiated an agreement with the university and the city to provide millions of dollars to the community from a university expansion project.

Participants at the meeting sponsored by the Overtown Alliance hope to persuade Carlisle Development Group and Miami-Dade County to negotiate a Community Benefits Agreement (CBA) for the 7th Avenue Transit Village in Liberty City and to persuade the University of Miami to agree to sign a CBA for its new Biotech Park in Overtown.

CBAs are legally binding contracts among the developer of a project, associated government agencies and independent community groups.  Supporters of the agreements say they must be inclusive and enforceable and must hold developers and government accountable for what they promise.

CBAs often guarantee developers will hire and train local residents to work on a project; promise businesses displaced by a project that contains retail space that they can return at the same rent they paid in their old spaces; and offer community groups space in the new project, along with other provisions.

But not all CBA efforts succeed as well as the one with Columbia U.

Marisela Gomez, who leads a community action committee in East Baltimore, attempted to negotiate a comprehensive agreement with Johns Hopkins University in connection with a plan to enlarge that university’s medical campus.

The university wouldn’t talk, Gomez said.

But the city, which was acquiring land for the project under government’s right to take land for a public purpose under “eminent domain” laws, agreed to compensate homeowners more than they otherwise would have and to help renters relocate.

“Eight hundred households — almost 3,000 people — were to be removed from their homes so the city, could build three biotech buildings, housing and space for new businesses” said Gomez. “What they ignored was that there was already a community there, which had been there for 60 to 70 years”

The city’s original proposal offered displaced residents support only if they moved to specific, low-income communities, Gomez said.”That changed to folks being able to get up to $70,000 plus the value of their properties and were allowed to move wherever they want” she said.

Hashim Yeoman-Benfords, lead organizer for the Miami Workers Center, said the timing was now right to push for CBAs on the Liberty City and Overtown projects.

The Liberty City project, to be built by Carlisle Development Group at Northwest Seventh Avenue and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Boulevard (Northwest 62nd Street), is to include a bus, taxi and jitney transit center, retail space and as many as 200 affordable condominiums.

Companies at UM’s already complete Life Science & Technology Park in Overtown will develop new medical products and conduct research for biotech companies, working with both U.M. faculty and students.

U.M. says it has already provided a good deal to the local community, including construction of a health clinic at the Overtown Youth Center, and that the university, developer, Wexford LLC, and Miami officials are discussing ways to train residents for biotech jobs.

Conteh Davis of the Overtown community group PowerU, said residents don’t see how the biotech center benefits them.”You ask the people living in the area to tell you what it is and most of them can't," said Davis. ‘“Why is it here?’ they ask’”

Yeoman-Benfords also served as a panelist and said the timing was right to negotiate CBAs for the two projects.
“Community Benefit Agreement fights usually happen after a developer has been chosen and no longer is dependent on their relationship with the government” he said.

Alex Scott may be contacted at ascot002Wfiu.edu.

Photo: Hashim Yeoman-Benfords