Steinberg's arena bill may limit community benefits from a new Sacramento Kings home

Do members of the Sacramento City Council really have the gumption to insist public benefits be part of an arena deal?

All the phony drama about Chris Hansen and signature gatherers aside, the reality is that public subsidies for a new NBA basketball facility in Sacramento will likely ultimately move forward.

Clearly, it doesn’t much matter whether the arena plan is a good economic investment for Sacramento taxpayers. But if the public must foot the bill for a new arena, the deal can at least be made less bad.

Start with good design and real public input, of course. And Bites suggests getting a written guarantee on that $500 million in surrounding development promised by the whales. And finally, insistence on a strong “community benefits agreement” may help as well.

In big cities like Los Angles and San Diego, Pittsburgh, New York City and Atlanta, CBAs are an increasingly common element in arena and stadium projects. The agreements help mitigate impacts—like the displacement of poor people, or increased traffic, parking and noise in local neighborhoods. And they help spread some public benefits around to a community that is racking up considerable public costs.

For example, the CBA governing development around L.A.’s Staples Center included money to fund local parks and rec programs, “living wages” for jobs generated by the project, new affordable-housing money, and even community input on what businesses would be allowed to move into the new development around the arena.

“It has to be a benefit for our neighborhoods. It can’t just be a benefit for rich people who live in the suburbs,” says Bill Camp, executive secretary of the Sacramento Central Labor Council, the political arm of Sacramento’s local unions. Labor’s support for the arena has helped move it forward—but it comes with conditions.

The labor council wants new arena jobs to be given to residents from the city’s high-unemployment neighborhoods, subsidized public transportation for workers at the arena and “associated facilities,” and on-site child care for workers. The CLC also wants “labor peace” agreements covering workers at hotels and restaurants that are part of the project, allowing them to unionize without interference.

This list is not to be confused with the labor pact now being finalized between the arena developers and the Sacramento-Sierra Building and Construction Trades Council. The actual deal hasn’t been made public yet, but it reportedly requires at least 60 percent of the construction jobs to go to workers from the Sacramento area. (It’s not entirely clear to Bites why “Sacramento area” residents should get the jobs, when city residents are footing the bill.)

Labor is not the only group pushing for a CBA. Bill Kennedy, with the nonprofit Legal Services of Northern California, has been talking strategy with housing advocates and social-justice groups. There again, jobs for low-income residents, affordable housing and transportation would likely be on the agenda.

“If they claim this project is about creating jobs, then who is going to get the benefit of the jobs created at the arena and in the district? Can we create better jobs?” asked Kennedy.

Kennedy also noted that any arena project at the Downtown Plaza will displace low-income residents of local single-room-occupancy housing, like the Marshall Hotel, and push the poor out generally. Some will see that as a benefit by itself. “But just moving people out of town doesn’t solve the problem,” he added. Homeless and affordable-housing advocates from Safe Ground and the Sacramento Housing Alliance have shown interest in a CBA, said Kennedy.

But how do you get developers to sit down and negotiate a CBA? Do members of the city council—who so far haven’t exactly played hardball with the investor whales—really have the gumption to insist such public benefits be part of an arena deal?

This is, after all, the brought-to-you-by-Wal-Mart, “billionaires think we are worthy” Sacramento City Council we are talking about here.

Historically, the California Environmental Quality Act has helped force developers to mitigate the social and environmental impacts of their projects. On a project this size, any delay can cost millions of dollars. CBAs have happened where developers have had the incentive to sit down with labor or community groups, and make concessions rather than fight off lawsuits.

But earlier this month state Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg pushed through special legislation limiting CEQA’s effect on the Sacramento arena project, and likely limiting CEQA’s usefulness as a tool for community groups.

“It takes probably the biggest hammer away,” said Kennedy, though he added that the impacts of Steinberg’s Senate Bill 743 were not yet entirely clear.

To Camp, the city’s $250 million-plus public subsidy gives the council all of the leverage it needs to insist on a strong CBA. “We want this project to succeed,” Camp said. “But if you are going to turn around and stab us in the back, get the hell out of town.”