A compromise for Remington

25th Street Station needs a Community Benefits Agreement to ensure local people stand to gain from it

August 16, 2010|By Brendan Coyne and Zelda Robinson

Recent opinions expressed on the pages of The Baltimore Sun make it seem like the proposed 25th Street Station project in Remington is a done deal — and that the proposal as written is the only choice for Baltimore.

The coalition groups we represent, Bmore Local and Baltimore CAN, disagree, as does a large and varied group of city residents who are committed to raising the standards for development in Baltimore, starting with 25th Street Station. We are concerned about the size and scope of the proposed development and what this type of big-box retail center would really mean for nearby residents and those who would work there.

If approved, 25th Street Station, which would be anchored by Walmart and Lowe's, would undoubtedly create new traffic and noise pollution problems for Remington and neighboring communities, from Charles Village to Hampden and beyond. Supporters of the development plan claim this will be tempered by new jobs and expanded tax revenues for the city.

As proposed, the project will bring jobs, yes — but mostly part-time, minimum-wage jobs that don't lift people out of poverty, come with affordable health insurance or offer a retirement plan.

The tax revenue claims supporters make are overstated. The project site is in a Maryland Enterprise Zone and therefore eligible for a 10-year credit against city property taxes on new construction and business improvements, which is noted by but not factored into the economic analysis prepared by the Jacob France Institute for the developer, WV Urban Developments LLC. Due to Baltimore's classification as a "focus area," that five-year, 80 percent tax credit may well end up lasting 10 years, instead of decreasing by 10 percent annually for the last five years it is covered by the program.

Even without the credits, there is good reason to question the amount of tax income the city should expect from 25th Street Station. Last month, The Wall Street Journal reported on a presentation by the Sarasota County, Fla., director of Smart Growth, Peter Katz, showing that big-box stores like Walmart produce only $100 to $200 more in tax revenue per acre than a single-family home.

There is a compromise, however, between the development plan as written and blocking the project entirely. The solution is a Community Benefits Agreement (CBA). With projects of the magnitude of 25th Street Station, CBAs are pacts between the developer and the community that set the tone for community self-management and sustainability. Strong business-community partnerships create mutually beneficial opportunities for all.

There are 13 points that should be part of a 25th Street Station CBA. These include a commitment to hire a majority of employees from within five miles of the development and to pay them a living wage with health insurance; space for local independent businesses; and public-transit-friendly facilities. Stores should close between midnight and 6 a.m. and have 24-hour, visible security officers. The points are intended to make Remington a great place to live and work, and can be read in their entirety at http://www.bmorelocal.net.

A Community Benefits Agreement itself is not enough unless the Baltimore City Council makes it legally binding. Without the force of law, any CBA signed by Walmart or the other 25th Street Station businesses can be conveniently ignored. (The Walmarts of the world have shown time and again that they will not do what is best for a community unless that neighborhood's residents demand it.)

The good news is that a legally binding CBA is entirely within reach. All the communities need is for city leaders to exercise a little political will. Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke, whose district, the 14th, is immediately adjacent to the proposed site, supports attaching a CBA to 25th Street Station. Her council colleague Belinda Conaway represents the 7th District, where the project would be located. She supports a living wage for retail workers — a key component of the 13 points and the backbone of any worthwhile CBA. Surely this nucleus of support for the surrounding communities' needs and concerns is the perfect opportunity for the rest of the council to stand up for Baltimoreans.

This isn't about opposing retail development at all costs. This is about respect and about what's right. We must never forget that our communities belong to us. We set the standards. And those standards need to be legally enforceable. Otherwise they aren't standards, they're just suggestions.

We're not saying "no" to new development. We're saying "no" to dead-end, part-time minimum wages, "no" to big-box retailers who take their profits to other communities and give next to nothing back. Have some respect, Baltimore. We deserve it.

Brendan Coyne is president of Bmore Local. His e-mail is bccoyne@gmail.com. The Rev. Zelda Robinson is a member of Baltimore CAN. Her e-mail is apostle888@gmail.com.

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