25th St. Station likely to go ahead without stipulations for living wage, small business protection

25th St. Station likely to go ahead without stipulations for living wage, small business protection

The proposed commercial development at 25th St. and Howard Ave in Remington is in its final stages of City approval, and the chances of a living wage for future employees there, along with any assistance to small businesses in the area that may effected by the development, seem bleak. The $65 million dollar development will be anchored by a Walmart and Lowes, part of the retailers giants’ national push into urban areas.

The year-long 25th St. Station zoning approval process has touched on a number of larger issues, exposing what some see as a less than transparent city council, and a lack of cooperation between neighborhood organizations. A living wage for the hundreds of jobs at the development would have marked a milestone in a number of local labor groups’ campaigns, setting a precedent for any future development in the city. Proponents of the development tout the hundreds of new jobs and expected tax revenue for local governments. Critics point out that it continues the trend in Baltimore of tax-payer funded private developments that do not provide livable wages or long-term benefits for locals.

The 25th Street development will benefit from about $10 million in Maryland Enterprise Zone and New Market Tax credits over the next ten years. This comes as a result of the City Council extending the City’s Empowerment Zone last October to include the site, months before any public notice of planned retail development there. Although it is not uncommon for legislation granting zoning approval, called a Proposed Urban Development (PUD), to impose design and operating conditions from communities on the developer, several City Council members, along with a number of nearby neighborhood organizations involved appear to be reluctant to add any labor-related requirements to the legislation.

At a City Council meeting on Monday that saw a unanimous vote moving the legislation to a final vote for approval next week, Councilwoman Belinda Conway and Judith Kunst of the Greater Remington Improvement Association expressed concern that attaching wage-related language to the bill might draw claims of illegal discrimination by retailers such as Walmart. Complicating matters, the Council’s legislative experts have reminded members that any discussions influencing their decisions on the legislation must be made public. Council members could, however, simply choose not to support legislation for reasons not mentioned in it, such as stipulations for living wages and subsidised space for local businesses.

Several organizations were formed when news of the inclusion of a Walmart in the proposed development came to light. Bmore Local, a group of area businesses and residents, sought to have a 13-point amendment to be added to the PUD. It would have required the developer, WV Development, to ensure retailers with more than 15 employees at the site hire 60% of them from within a 5-mile radius, and pay them at least $12.25 an hour, the current Maryland Living Wage Standard. It would have also mandated health insurance for workers there and defined “Full time” workers as those working at least 35 hours/week. The amendment also called for 15% of the retail space to be occupied by local independent businesses, and 25% of the new residential units to be set aside as affordable housing.

Zoning legislation does not typically contain such language though, and the usual mechanism for addressing community concerns is through a legally-binding document such as a Community Benefits Agreement. In return for signing on to it, a developer receives crucial support from neighborhood organizations in its re-zoning efforts. A growing number groups in cities including Buffalo, New York, and Chicago are attempting to include living wages in such agreements as Walmart attempts to expand in the urban retail market. In the case of the 25th St. Station development, the only document outlining such an agreement is an August 4th 2010 letter from WV Development to a number of neighborhood organizations. In it, the developer rejects any space quota or rent subsidies for local businesses. The issue of living wages and any other labor-related stipulations are also rejected. Instead, WV Development transfers the responsibility of all hiring of employees to the Mayor’s Office of Employment Development, where a full-time position is to be filled for overseeing the process during the first year of the project. The developer also pledges to create a Community Committee that would promote businesses east to St. Paul St. as a “diverse, pedestrian-friendly shopping district".

WV Development did agree to a number of stipulations that, if violated would have landed them in other legal trouble. It agreed not to apply for PILOT or TIFF tax abatement programs, and to pay the Charles Village Community Association (CVCA) a surtax of $12 for every $100 of the site’s value. CVCA uses the surtax to provide for neighborhood upkeep in Charles Village, including trash collection and landscaping to augment Baltimore City services.

City Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke says the letter may not have a legal basis anyway. Clarke would like to see that “every merchant at the site, all 11 acres of it, pay each of its employees a living wage”. She introduced legislation that was passed in 1994 mandating a living wage for all businesses dealing with the City. It was a pioneering legislation, followed by similar state-wide legislation in 2007 and mandates in a number of other cities accros the nation. Earlier this year, Clarke introduced broader legislation that would have required any employer in the City with an annual revenue exceeding $10million to pay a living wage. But the bill was rejected in an initial Labor Subcommittee vote, with Councilman Warren Branch voting against it, and Councilwoman Belinda Conaway for it. A third member, Councilman Nicholas D’Adamo Jr., was absent for the hearing, which drew more than a hundred city residents. Clarke, who has since repeatedly promise to “resurrect” the bill, points out that her first legislation in 1994 took 18 years to get the necessary approval.

In the past, Conaway has claimed that she voted for the bill despite pressure from Walmart, saying the retailer’s representatives asked her to vote against the living wage legislation, in exchange for a higher wage for workers at the new development. At the hearing Monday however, Conaway denied any such conversation ever occurred. Her critics contend that she has not been forthcoming in the nature of her negotiations with Walmart. Conaway’s district includes Mondawmin Mall, where the opening of a Target store several years ago prompted an indictment against State Senator Ulysses Currie for corruption.

Betty Robinson, part of a coalition of local labor and community organizations called Baltimore CAN, points out that the apparent failure to secure a living wage is part of a set of larger systematic problems in the City. Baltimore CAN and Bmore Local collected thousands of signatures on a petition for the labor amendments they proposed to the PUD, and helped turn out standing-room-only supporters to City Council hearings on the 25th St. Station development. She says there is a de-facto understanding in the City Council that ensures members support the view of their colleague that represents the district affected by any legislation. The tactic gives the Council a mechanism to counter what would otherwise be a powerful Mayor, but stifles any internal disagreement. Thus, even though a number of Council members have publicly stated their opposition to the PUD language, they continue to vote in favor of it because Conaway has asked for their support.

Robinson points to the bigger picture. “This is all part of changing the conversation in Baltimore about development. We havn’t had city-wide conversations until now. A developer swoops in, and the neighborhood negotiates whatever issue is at the top of their agenda.” She says citizens need to give input for the larger decisions surrounding development, not just if “the facade is gonna have green or blue paint.” The most important questions, of how the City should grow, Robinson contends, are already made before matters even come to a public hearing. The Baltimore City Council is likely to give final approval for the 25th St. Station development at a hearing on Monday.