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City Council Mon May 11 2009

Community Benefits Agreements

The news that the city signed a Memorandum of Understanding that set up a community benefits agreement for the 2016 Olympic Games was met with understandable skepticism in the media and among community residents on the South Side. Sam Cholke's piece in the Hyde Park Herald is the latest critical examination of the community benefits agreement (CBA), pointing out that there's little in it that is legally binding.

I've refrained from writting about the Olympics CBA, largely out of respect for friends and colleagues who worked hard to get a CBA passed and because of my own awkward activism history around the Olympics. I do worry, though, that the what seems to be the inevitable disappointment with this CBA will taint CBAs as a policy tool in general for Chicago activists and politicians. Given that CBAs have beenused in other cities quite effectively to promote equitable community development.

CBA's are a tool that movements for equitable community development can use to achieve the goal of ensuring that developments and other muncipal projects that recieve muncipal subsidies broadly benefit neighborhood residents. The most successful CBAs were the end result of massive mobilizations of community groups, labor unions, and other political actors. The biggest weakness of CBAs is their legal enforceablity: as the Herald and others have noted, CBAs are not airtight legal documents.

What makes CBAs work is the power of the mobilization behind them. They require a broad moblization of neighborhood residents and city-wide groups to pressure developers and city governments into accepting the terms of the agreement as a condition for the development's construction. In other words, the best CBAs are forced upon city governments who fear the ruin of their plans if they don't acede to community demands.

This mobilization works on the implementation end as well. CBAs require enforcement language and a moblized community to enforce their standards. Specific enforcement language means more than just Bush-esque benchmarks. Rather penalties for non-compliance and plans for moblization around implementation issues are necessary.

Which is why it doesn't matter that the Olympics CBA isn't 100% legally enforceable. What matters is the strength of the movement behind it and the pressure the mayor and the City Council feel from that movement. Unfortunately, given that (according to the Tribune) the most powerful labor unions in the city are busy tilting at EFCA windwills and running million dollar national health care ad campaigns, the City Council is as dangerous to Daley's plans as the Politburo to Stalin, and local media is wrapped up in Drew Peterson's narcissism and the mayor has millions of FU TIF money there's little to make one confident this CBA will be enforceable and meaningful for residents of the South and West Sides affected by the 2016 Olympics. It's a shame that the threat of the greatest Chicago boondoggle since Rex Grossman has done little to spark a movement to fundamentally change how development is done in this city.

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Valerie F. Leonard / May 14, 2009 9:07 AM

Thank you for writing this article. Thanks to the wonderful advocacy of groups like CEO, we hear a lot about the CBA. I will say, that after reading it, I was totally impressed, and offered public testimony in support of the MOU.

I was surprised and deeply disturbed to learn that the Chicago 2016 plans for Douglas Park include the demolition of the Collins High School gym to construct a 6,000 seat Velodrome (indoor bicycle racing track) at a cost of $37.1 million.

I was equally dismayed to learn that the United States Department of Education, headed by former CPS CEO Arne Duncan, has placed the highest sanctions possible on 4 Chicago charter schools. The federal sanctions will result in restructuring and could lead to closing of the schools. The list includes North Lawndale College Preparatory Charter High School, which operates from the Howland and Collins campuses. If North Lawndale College Prep is closed without a suitable education alternative, the Collins High School building could be vulnerable to demolition or takeover by the Park District or some other entity.

Indeed, the timing of the restructuring and potential closing of the school is curious. It seems very strange that a man (Secretary Duncan) who has given North Lawndale Prep a pass for years is now sanctioning the school--at a time when Chicago is a finalist city to host the Olympics and must ramp up land assembly to build infrastructure to host the Games.

Chicago 2016 prides itself on developing a plan that doesn't require demolition of homes or displacement of residents. However, the City and our elected officials neglected to tell the us that they could be effectively displacing North Lawndale students. If the school is not closed, the remaining students will be severely inconvenienced with the loss of a gym. It is not clear where students will have gym classes while the Velodrome is being constructed. As it is, students from some local schools are already sharing gym facilities or using the local parks because they have no gym.

North Lawndale, more than any other community, has experienced massive disruption and mayhem due to school closings and restructurings to produce Renaissance 2010 schools whose results are not much different from the failing schools they replaced. Just when we thought things were settling down, there's a chance we could lose North Lawndale College Prep High School, and the Collins building completely.

Losing the Collins building (or the use of it as a school) effectively means that North Lawndale won't have use of the only building in the community that was originally intended for use as a high school. If North Lawndale Prep closes, we wouldn't have but 2 high schools left—Collins Academy, a troubled charter high school that shares the Collins building with North Lawndale College Prep, and the Power House High School, which got off to a very rocky start. North Lawndale already has no traditional high school, let alone access to high schools with a demonstrated track record of success.

Losing the Collins building also has cultural implications. The school was named for George W. Collins, the first African American congressman from North Lawndale. Potential demolition or takeover of the building by the Park District would remove yet another symbol of African American culture from the North Lawndale landscape. It is as if the City is systematically removing all remnants of the African American presence in North Lawndale, and using the Olympics as one of the tools.

Why doesn't Chicago 2016 explore alternative sites for the Velodrome that don't require demolition? If they must operate in the Chicago Parks, they should consider moving the Velodrome south of Ogden (which doesn't have any buildings), or even Garfield Park.

Words cannot express my disappointment that no one from the Chicago 2016 Community Outreach Committee, or our elected officials pushed to protect the legacy of Congressman George W. Collins by keeping the school building intact. They need to act quickly to preserve the only building in North Lawndale that was actually constructed for the purpose of being a high school. While I applaud the African American aldermen's stance on minority contracts, affordable housing, jobs, and calls for no displacement of local residents, our children's learning cannot be sacrificed for the Olympics. Somehow the tradeoff between a Velodrome and a local high school seems like an unequal exchange, and our children will pay the price.

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