Real talk about collective-benefits agreements, extortion, greed and the latest Sacramento Kings-arena lawsuit

The Sacramento Coalition for Shared Prosperity hopes to leverage the Kings and help fund affordable housing, homeless services, mass transit and local small businesses

To go deeper into the latest Sacramento Kings-arena lawsuit and the fight over a community-benefits agreement, read Raheem F. Hosseini's cover story this week, “How the Kings arena will shake-up downtown Sacramento as we know it.”

Last week, housing advocates and environmental groups filed a new lawsuit over the Kings arena, alleging that the planning for the project doesn’t sufficiently address the arena’s many impacts on traffic, housing and the quality of life in surrounding neighborhoods.

It’s the second lawsuit brought against the arena under the California Environmental Quality Act. The plaintiffs, the Sacramento Coalition for Shared Prosperity, hope the lawsuit will help leverage some concessions from the Kings—in the form of a community-benefits agreement that would help fund affordable housing in the central city, homeless services, transit passes for workers and a small-business loan fund for local businesses, among other requests.

Predictably, the suit was met with outrage from arena boosters. Sacramento Bee columnist/Sacramento Basketball Holdings LLC stenographer Marcos Breton called the proposed CBA and lawsuit, “extortion” and “greed.”

Everybody got that? Going to court to try and win a few more public benefits in exchange for an enormous public subsidy is called extortion. When the NBA threatens to move a team unless it gets $300 million-plus in taxpayer money to build a new arena, it’s called a “public-private partnership.”

Anyway, CBAs are actually pretty common in California cities with fewer self-esteem issues, communities like Los Angeles and San Diego that have secured CBAs in exchange for far less generous public subsidies.

And everything the Coalition is asking for is something that would support the city’s stated goals for downtown revitalization, help bring more residents to live downtown, support local businesses and promote economic development.

“I would like nothing more than to see the arena catalyze a renaissance downtown,” says Dr. Alex Kelter of the Environmental Council of Sacramento, one of the groups involved in the Coalition.

As an environmentalist and a public-health doctor, Kelter believes that the city needs to curb sprawl and add thousands of housing units downtown, at all income levels. “Housing is the keystone for protecting open space and habitat, promoting transit, and agriculture.”

The Kings project includes some housing, about 550 units that will rent for whatever the market will bear. But beyond that, there’s no guarantee for housing and other ancillary development around the arena. The Kings make a big deal about the $800,000 they have “pledged” to the city’s affordable-housing trust fund. But, actually, they have to pay that by law. It’s literally the least they can do, and a drop in the bucket compared to the need.

All in all, the things the city says it really cares about—housing, transit-oriented development, local business—are secondary to the basketball arena. CEQA certainly doesn’t prevent the city from putting together a weak project that fails to get much benefit for the buck. Downtown is proof of that.

But it does require the city to fully analyze the environmental impacts of the project, like traffic and air quality, impacts to neighborhoods, and displacement of poor people, and then to do something about it. The lawsuits, one by the Coalition and one by another group of Sacramento citizens represented by land-use attorney Kelly Smith, say the city has fallen short of its obligations under CEQA.

The additional investment in housing and public transit and local business are what Kelter’s group proposes to offset some of the impacts of the project. “Maximizing transit, improving air quality—these are the goals of CEQA. And providing housing downtown meets those goals,” Kelter explains.

In the past, the possibility of delays and additional costs of a CEQA lawsuit might have been enough to get a developer to sit down and negotiate. But the arena is protected by Darrell Steinberg’s Senate Bill 743, which was specifically written to fast-track the Kings arena and prohibits a judge from issuing any injunctions to stop the project while considering a CEQA challenge.

“It really takes away the court’s authority and raises a separation-of-powers issue,” says attorney Don Mooney, who is representing the Coalition.

Both lawsuits also challenge the constitutionality of S.B. 743. The Smith suit is due for a hearing on July 25, just as demolition of Downtown Plaza is set to begin.

The judge is Timothy Frawley, the same judge who threw out petition signatures from tens of thousands of Sacramento residents who wanted a vote on the arena plan. So arena boosters have got to like their chances there.

And even if the groups get a win in court, nothing will happen to magically make the project a good deal for the city. But it could be a slightly better deal. Sacramento needs to get at least a little bit greedy before it’s too late, and ask for some more reasonable benefits in return for all that money. That might bring a little balance to a project that has been much more about renewing the Kings’ bottom line than about renewing downtown.