November 1, 1999

Last month, SAND member Shirley Kressel published the following article in the Boston Globe.

Copyright 1999 Globe Newspaper Company   The Boston Globe

October 9, 1999, Saturday ,City Edition


LENGTH: 886 words

Let's not bargain away the neighborhoods with 'community benefits' deals

BYLINE: By Shirley Kressel

Shirley Kressel is a landscape architect.

Boston's linkage program was created in 1983 to spread downtown development wealth to affordable housing initiatives in the neighborhoods.

But linkage, as well as negotiable community benefits, has turned city planning into a forced negotiation between powerful developers and under-served residents. Consequently, developers account for such compensation in their project designs. They donate public services that are increasingly cut from public budgets - parks, street improvements, community facilities. These services become the currency for buying project approval. Responsibility for public goods is being shifted to the private sector.

For 15 years, linkage has subsidized on average only 275 affordable units yearly - in a city more than 40,000 units short. Clearly, linkage can't possibly relieve housing pressure resulting from large-scale commercial and institutional development. Nor can developers' "community benefits" support a crumbling community infrastructure.

Yet, on the premise that we can no longer expect public goods from our government, the community benefits model of public services is increasingly presented as our only choice. But as in many public-private partnerships replacing downsized government, these "free" benefits cost us dearly.

"Benefit packages" pit residents against each other; neighborhood groups (including linkage-based community development corporations) vying for development rewards often support proposed projects unacceptable on merit, even contradicting existing neighborhood plans. Groups citing past disadvantages or future impacts demand all benefits from local projects, despite citywide distribution rules and, sometimes, citywide impacts.

A process of benefits procurement, control, and use - which is outside public oversight and accountability - shapes our future, and immediate, tangible gains over-ride broader community goals in the scramble to salvage something from projects that are perceived or promoted as "done deals."

But it's an uneven bargaining field: Residents aren't told of the huge environmental and municipal costs of excess development. Nor are residents informed about developers' windfalls. For example, the 1983 $5 per-square-foot linkage assessment has lost half its value to inflation and loses half again when discounted for the regulated 7- to 12-year payment term (FleetCenter wangled an astounding 30-year term).

Compared to enormously profitable height, density, and use variances, linkage is insignificant - and fear of discouraging development (or encouraging lawsuits) will always keep it so. The lopsided benefit ratio spurs developers to staggering excesses, further fueling inflationary housing and land speculation.

Community benefits corrupt official as well as community process. The city under-zones to bring developers to the negotiation table, and then trades away protective regulation and good planning for "contributions" to public space, public works, and other city obligations.

Rather than prescribing good urban fabric, zoning merely opens the bidding in auctioning our public realm. Developers can choose desirable locations for luxury housing and shunt away low-income housing, ghettoizing the city. They can negotiate rights to sunlight and air, the streets and the waterfront.

Yet, even with the development boom, 70 percent of Boston's families face housing affordability problems; moreover, open space, schools, and infrastructure are in critical condition.

Obviously, making shelter and neighborhood an incidental by-product of real estate investment will get us neither adequate housing nor livable communities, only endless square feet of "gross leasable area."

Ultimately, linkage privatizes planning. It is part of a broader privatization of public services nationwide, accepted by over-burdened taxpayers unwittingly suffering decades of regressive tax restructuring, notably a shift from corporations (33 percent of total taxes in 1940, now 9 percent) to individuals. "Small government" puts us in the hands of corporate interests, where, even now, with public surpluses, we have to trade away one public good in the hope of getting another.

The benefits bazaar just distracts us from the real problems of building communities. If we can fairly ask something from a developer, let's just require it, without trades. If we need public services, let's fund them with public money, publicly allocated. And if we want affordable housing, let's create a real housing market, rather than a trickle-down "company town."

First, let's debunk the myth of "wage inflation" and raise working people's real pay, in decline for 20 years, so they can create demand as buyers and not as charity cases.

Second, let's make housing construction a top priority. For convention centers, hotels and stadiums, politicians manipulate regulations and justify massive subsidies as "investments." They can do the same for housing.

Disinvestment in housing and community infrastructure is a complex regional and national problem; solutions at several scales will be needed. Meanwhile, let's not bargain away our neighborhoods. The best community benefit is a development that serves community needs, in a way that's environmentally sustainable and socially just.


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