Almost a year to the day after Ypsilanti's city council meetings on the controversial International Village development, the city has adopted a community benefits ordinance (CBO) allowing residents to directly request specific community benefits from developers who want to build on city-owned land.
The new ordinance is the result of a citizen-led coalition's efforts to establish a more equitable community process that engages all residents in development decisions. The group, called Rising for Economic Democracy in Ypsi (REDY), worked for months to build support among residents and city staff, and drafted the CBO with the help of assistant city attorney Dan DuChene.
The CBO is something of a pioneering document at the national level. Detroit's CBO, passed in 2016, has been noted as the nation's first such ordinance. Municipalities more commonly create community benefits agreements (CBAs) for individual developments, but Ypsi's CBO requires a CBA for all developers requesting $50,000 or more in financial support from the city.
On Sept. 11, city council passed the CBO with a vote of 5-2, following a first reading of the ordinance during a special council session on Aug. 29. Mayor Amanda Edmonds, mayor pro tem Nicole Brown, and council members Lois Allen-Richardson, Beth Bashert, and Pete Murdock voted in favor of the ordinance, while council members Dan Vogt and Brian Robb voted against it. Some CBO supporters who spoke during the meeting, both officials and residents, pointed out that the ordinance isn't perfect, but they hope it will lead to increased transparency and civic engagement.
"I think that there’s still work that can be done," says REDY organizer Desirae Simmons. "There’s still amendment processes. There’s still ways that we can make it better. I think people should continue to engage in that process."
The CBO process will be activated when a developer approaches the city with a project requesting $50,000 or more in financial support. The city will be required to schedule a community meeting on the project, notifying everyone who lives within 1,000 feet of the proposed development. City council will then form an ad hoc committee composed of up to eight residents, at least three of whom must have attended the community meeting.
The ad hoc committee will then meet with the developer to discuss community benefits and recommend stipulations, like local hiring and sustainability practices, for inclusion in a CBA. City council will ultimately decide what would be required of the developer.
REDY formed a year ago in response to the contentious International Village proposal that called for a $250 million mixed-use residential and commercial development on the city's Water Street property. Allen-Richardson, the only council member to vote against the purchase agreement for International Village, initiated the CBO effort by organizing a town hall immediately after the vote. That meeting brought together a group of people who spoke out against International Village and then went on to form REDY. Allen-Richardson says she hopes the CBO can affect more favorable outcomes for residents moving forward.
"We had been giving tax breaks and whatever and never asking for anything in return," she says. "We were practically giving land away."
Some REDY members got involved because they felt the community's wants and needs weren't being taken into consideration when the city made decisions on International Village and other developments. They wanted the city to adopt a CBO to ensure that the community is involved in the process.
"I think Ypsilanti really needed a CBO because our options for development are so limited, but they would have such a huge impact on the community here," Simmons says. "After International Village, it was very clear that if the community didn’t have a direct seat at a table with a developer, that we may not be the community that we are today tomorrow."
Throughout the CBO drafting process, REDY frequently held open meetings to consider participants' priorities and city council's concerns. Allen-Richardson and Murdock were often on hand to provide their input through several rounds of redrafting. Murdock says he tried to "suggest some things that council would accept that weren’t the full-blown things that REDY wanted."
One of the main concerns was how residents would be appointed to the ad hoc committee, which was a focus of the special session where the CBO was read for the first time. The initial CBO draft called for residents to appoint all of the ad hoc committee members at the community meeting. Council members were concerned about giving their authority to the committee because it's unclear who might attend the community meetings. They ended up compromising by allowing council to appoint up to five resident ad hoc committee members who did not attend the community meeting for a given development, and to appoint one council member to the ad hoc committee as well.
Ypsi resident David Reynolds, co-founder of Doing Development Differently in Metro Detroit, got involved in REDY early on and helped guide many of its meetings due to his knowledge of the community benefits movement.
"Ultimately, this ordinance that passed is really a city council-driven process, but it really sets the expectation that the community is involved early in the process, people know what’s going on, and they have a clear channel for input," Reynolds says. "You could have a controversy where the city council doesn’t listen to any community input. But we entered this with the spirit that folks really wanted to do something positive, so this gives an opportunity for a partnership between the community and council."
Brian Geiringer got more involved with REDY over time. He describes the group as a continuation of the energy sparked by the International Village proposal. He thinks the effort was propelled by residents' desire for "justice" and "autonomy," and he believes that "moving towards more direct democratic modes of operating just naturally do that."
“At the end of the day, there’s a long history of lack of self-representation, and this is one small step in the right direction," Geiringer says.
Reynolds hopes the establishment of the new process leads to residents being more informed and feeling good about where the city is heading.
"My hope is that it does lead to meaningful community engagement early in the process ... and as a result of this, not only is the community happy about a development, but the developer is happy," Reynolds says. "(I hope) that Ypsi gets a reputation that because the meaningful engagement happens at the beginning ... you end up with a strong development project that both sides support and that leads to ... positive growth in the city."
Some REDY organizers, including Reynolds and Simmons, hope Ypsi's CBO will prompt other municipalities to consider adopting their own ordinances. The group has already been asked to help out with CBO efforts in Pontiac and Minneapolis. REDY also plans to continue promoting economic democracy in Ypsi in other ways. The group will spread the word and encourage residents to attend community meetings whenever the CBO process is activated. Simmons thinks REDY could work with the city on future projects, like a community land trust.
"Washtenaw County is in the bottom 8 percent of counties in the country for economic mobility," Simmons says. "That’s huge, because if we can figure out here how to stem the tide and how to share the resources, I think it would have huge implications for other places to show that we don’t have to only go one way."
Brianna Kelly is the project manager for On the Ground Ypsi and an Ypsilanti resident. She has worked for The Associated Press and has freelanced for The Detroit News and Crain's Detroit Business.
Photos by Doug Coombe.