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Armory battle rages

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Burly carpenters and angry supermarket workers clashed over jobs and the future of the Kingsbridge Armory on Wednesday, June 24 at an electric public hearing in the northwest Bronx.

The supermarket workers and members of KARA – Kingsbridge Armory Redevelopment Alliance – begged Community Board 7 to snub Related Companies’ shopping mall plan until Related signs a binding community benefits agreement. The carpenters – members of a rough and tumble minority construction coalition – praised Related and urged CB7 to endorse Shops at the Armory, a planned 500,000 square foot mall. CB7 will tender an advisory vote on July 14.

KARA is dominated by Morton Williams Supermarket, headquartered on Kingsbridge Road across from the vacant armory, and the Northwest Bronx Community and Clergy Coalition. The carpenters belong to Positive Workforce, a civil rights group or hardhat mafia, depending on whom you ask.

“No good jobs, no peace!” KARA members chanted at the hearing, held in the Lehman College faculty dining room.

“Build it now! Build it now!” the carpenters bellowed.

In 2008, the NYC Economic Development Corporation and a community task force chose Related to redevelop the armory. Related will buy the property for $5 million and has requested $17.8 million in tax breaks. At the behest of CB7, Related included in an environmental assessment statement plans to bring a 60,000 square foot supermarket to the mall. The northwest Bronx is fresh food poor, according to a Deparment of City Planning study. Morton Williams fears that a Whole Foods or BJ’s Wholesale on Kingsbridge would shutter the family-owned supermarket. The Kingsbridge Armory request for proposals forbids the duplication of existing neighborhood businesses, Morton Williams owner Avi Caner said.

“It would put our store out of business, definitely,” said Morton Williams manager Anderson Acosta.

On June 24, KARA members asked Related to guarantee Shops at the Amory retail workers a living wage – $10 an hour plus benefits. According to a 2008 Fiscal Policy Institute study, more than 50 percent of retail workers in NYC are 35 years or older.

“We don’t want a poverty wage center,” KARA member and Fordham Hill resident Desiree Pilgrim-Hunter said.

According to Related lawyer Ethan Goodman, the mall will generate 1,200 retail and 1,000 construction jobs. It’ll feature a movie complex, an outdoor public plaza and 27,000 square feet of community space. But living wage is a dead end, Related lawyer Jesse Masyr said. Stores like Best Buy, Borders and BJ’s won’t stand for it. Related can’t afford to impose living wage on tenants, said Masyr. Although Morton Williams is a union shop, not all workers earn a living wage. Positive Workforce member and Morris Park resident Justin Pedraza considers living wage unrealistic. It could derail the mall plan, he said.

Perhaps Related will agree to subsidize living wage jobs itself, CB7 chair Greg Faulkner said. Related did promise to pay all internal workers a living wage. Faulkner expects CB7 to endorse Shops at the Armory with conditions – neighborhood hiring, below-market rent for non-profit and community oversight – and then rely on the borough president and city council to win a benefits agreement.

Related has agreed to build a “World Peace Atrium” and technology center in the armory head house. CB7 land use chair Ozzie Brown dreamed up the atrium and had Peter Yarrow of Peter, Paul and Mary perform at the June 24 hearing. Morton Williams and Positive Workforce members ignored Yarrow’s ode to peaceful dialogue and threatened to drown out unaffiliated Kingsbridge residents. KARA member Adolfo Abreu, 16, denounced the atrium idea.

“You want us to learn about Gandhi in a mall?” Abreu said.

But Rosamund Volney of Sedgewick Avenue voiced her support for the plan and healthy supermarket competition. William Francis of Kingsbridge Road warned CB7 not to miss out on a redeveloped armory. Adan Stevens-Diaz, an unemployed 25-year old, delivered heartfelt remarks.

“Listen to us young people,” he told CB7. “We want good jobs. Vote no.”

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