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Cabrera ponders Kingsbridge Armory’s future

The City Council spurned Mayor Michael Bloomberg and The Related Companies for a second straight week on Monday, December 21, as Bronx Delegation members led the vote to nix a mayoral veto and close the door on Related’s plan to redevelop the Kingsbridge Armory as a $310 million shopping mall.

Meanwhile, Councilman-elect Fernando Cabrera, scheduled to take office in the 14th Council District on Wednesday, January 6, promised to succeed where some would argue two-term Councilwoman Maria Baez failed – at the armory. The future of the behemoth landmark has landed in the new councilman’s hands and is sure to define, at least in part, his career. Cabrera, a pastor never before elected to office, cut his teeth at City Hall in talks between Related and the Bronx Delegation. Baez is reportedly ill and didn’t participate in the negotiations.

“I got involved by default but I have a personal interest in the armory,” Cabrera said. “I live three blocks away. My church is one block away.”

The City Council landed Bloomberg a rare blow on Monday, December 14 when 45 members voted to oppose the redevelopment plan. Only Queens Councilwoman Helen Sears voted for Related. The developer was set to buy the armory, deserted for more than a decade, at a discount and benefit from tens of millions of dollars in tax breaks. The upset hinged on traffic concerns and demands that Related guarantee living wages – $10 an hour plus benefits or $11.50 an hour without benefits – for retail workers at the armory. Cabrera sided with the Bronx Delegation and Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr., who argued that 1,200 retail jobs promised by Related would keep poor Bronx residents poor. Members of Cabrera’s congregation work two and three minimum wage jobs, he said. The result is “a generation without fathers and mothers at home,” the pastor explained.

“We did the right thing,” Cabrera said. “God dictated our decisions. We heard the community. Development that keeps people poor isn’t good development.”

Related and elected officials nearly worked out a compromise but Bloomberg and city lawyers scuttled those plans, Bronx Delegation members charged. For months, Bloomberg and Related had argued that a living wage requirement would damage attempts to land top retailers and render the mall unbuildable. The living wage debate continues in the Bronx and at City Hall.

While KARA, spearheaded by the Northwest Bronx Community and Clergy Council and the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union, celebrated the defeat of Related’s plan, the Real Estate Board of New York fumed; it may launch a billboard campaign to remind Bronx residents about the retail jobs that could have been. The mall would have generated 1,000 union construction jobs, Louis Coletti, president of the Building Trades Employers’ Association, moaned. The Economic Development Corporation request for proposals that Related secured to redevelop the city-owned armory has expired, a spokesman for the EDC said. The spokesman reiterated what Bloomberg has warned – it will be several years before another developer agrees to invest in the armory.

Cabrera disagrees. As councilman for the district that includes the armory, he’ll weigh options such as a shopping mall, a pharmaceutical research hub and an athletic track, he said. If the City Council passes a comprehensive living wage bill, there would be no significant quarrel between the Bronx Delegation and Related, Cabrera surmised.

“People have argued that it’ll be another 18 years [before the armory is redeveloped],” he said. “Not on my watch.”

KARA leader and Fordham Hill resident Desiree Pilgrim-Hunter thinks an agreeable developer or band of developers will soon step forward to renovate the armory but identified none.

“Our vision for the armory was never a mall,” Pilgrim-Hunter said. “We shouldn’t pursue that going forward.”

KARA helped Diaz Jr. draft a community benefits agreement that would have resulted in a YMCA and two schools of the armory in an annex, Pilgrim-Hunter added. The future of the annex, never intended for Related, remains uncertain.

Reach reporter Daniel Beekman at 718 742-3383 or dbeekman@cnglocal.com

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