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Downtown at City Hall on the afternoon of Monday, December 14, union bosses and lobbyists, Bronx pols and CEOs breathlessly rehashed a historic City Council vote to oppose the rezone and redevelopment of the Kingsbridge Armory as a shopping mall.
Uptown on Kingsbridge Road, Bronx residents trudged, heads down, past the armory, empty for more than ten years. Few stopped to regard the 575,000 square foot landmark. Even fewer were hip to the momentous vote downtown.
The City Council had never before refused Mayor Michael Bloomberg a development-based rezone. But when developer The Related Companies and the Bloomberg administration refused to guarantee living wages - $10 an hour plus benefits or $11.50 an hour without benefits – for retail workers at the planned mall, Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr. and the City Council Bronx Delegation squashed the plan 45 votes to 1.
The Bloomberg administration was set to sell the armory to Related for $5 million and grant the developer tens of millions of dollars in tax breaks in exchange for taxes generated at the $310 million mall - taxes now collected at malls in New Jersey and Westchester County. Related promised to generate 1,000 construction and 1,200 retail jobs.
Uptown on Kingsbridge Road
It is Bronx residents who will cope with the consequences of Monday’s vote, for better or worse. Joel Allen, a 44-year old Sedgwick Avenue super, applauded the vote.
“What the City Council did makes sense,” Allen said. “Times are hard. Low wage jobs don’t benefit anyone. One of my tenants was just evicted. If you make enough for bus fare but can’t pay the rent, what’s the point of going to work?”
The Kingsbridge Armory Redevelopment Alliance, spearheaded by the Northwest Bronx Community and Clergy Coalition and a retail workers union, led the battle for living wages. KARA members argued that the planned mall would generate part-time, low-wage jobs of no use to poor Bronx residents.
Devoe Terrace resident Ricky Ferguson, a 52-year old Montefiore Medical Center employee, disagreed. Ferguson started as a part-time worker with no benefits in 1986 and was soon promoted. Any jobs are better no jobs at all, Ferguson argued.
“You got to start somewhere,” he said.
Related’s mall would have helped nearby stores, Ferguson added.
“Business breeds business,” he said.
Not so, the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union and Morton Williams Supermarkets, a chain with a store kitty-corner to the armory, argued prior to the City Council vote. They and KARA persuaded Diaz Jr. to demand that Related exclude a new supermarket from the armory.
A new supermarket would have knocked scores of Morton Williams and bodega employees out of work, they warned. Months earlier, Community Board 7 asked Related to include a supermarket in the planned mall, to the delight of some shoppers.
University Avenue resident and college student Angelina Vasquez, 19, who strolled past the armory on December 14, has worked at a Manhattan Morton Williams for seven months. Vasquez makes $7.75 an hour. In November, she traveled to City Hall and demonstrated against an armory supermarket. Vasquez likes the sound of $10 an hour plus benefits but fears that higher wages result in fewer jobs.
KARA leader Desiree Pilgrim-Hunter called the vote a “bittersweet victory.” She and Diaz Jr. had urged the developer to sign a community benefits agreement, as it did at the newly completed Gateway Center shopping mall in the south Bronx.
“We want the armory developed,” Pilgrim-Hunter said. “Unfortunately, the Bloomberg administration chose to kill the project rather than require the developer…to sign a binding community benefits agreement that guaranteed living wages.”
Diaz Jr. praised the Bronx Delegation and echoed KARA.
“We can no longer support any project that only ensures profits for the developer while leaving our residents in poverty,” he said.
The vote was an unequivocal defeat for Related, which argued repeatedly that a living wage requirement would damage its attempts to land top retailers and render the mall unbuildable. Related spokeswoman Joanna Rose blamed the failed plan on special interest groups determined to impose “artificial wage demands that do not exist anywhere else in New York City or New York State.” The vote will hurt “residents of the Bronx who [suffer] the highest unemployment [rates] in the state,” Rose said.
Several construction and trade unions also expressed frustration. They had hoped Related would put 1,000 trades people and laborers to work, Building and Construction Trades Council of Greater New York president Gary Labarbera said.
The vote followed weeks of intense negotiations between the Bronx Delegation, the Bloomberg administration and Related. On Friday, December 11, two possible compromises emerged. Related or the city would reward retailers at the armory who agreed to pay workers living wages and/or establish a fund that would offer assistance to low-wage workers.
Although on December 14 Councilman Joel Rivera and other Bronx Delegation members referred to traffic, parking and environmental concerns as the basis for opposition to Related’s plan, it was Bloomberg who scuttled negotiations, a disappointed Councilman Oliver Koppell surmised.
“The agreement fell apart because [the administration] took its offer [to reward agreeable retailers] off the table,” Koppell said. “The mayor learned about [the offer] and wasn’t happy.”
Although Koppell voted to oppose the mall - only Queens Councilwoman Helen Sears voted for the plan - he thought the Bronx Delegation overemphasized living wages. To some extent, Rivera agreed.
“The wage issue had everyone’s attention but there were other issues we wanted to work out,” he said.
Rivera was glad to see the Bronx Delegation stand strong but asserted that the vote was not politically minded.
“Today wasn’t a vote against the mayor,” he said. “It was a vote for the community.”
Reach reporter Daniel Beekman 718 742-3383 or firstname.lastname@example.org
©2009 Community Newspaper Group
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