BP Diaz enters battle

Members of Positive Workforce, a minority construction coalition, asked Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr. to approve Related Companies’ plan for a Kingsbridge Armory shopping mall. Photo by Adi Talwar

Community Board 7 nudged. Now the borough president will shove. Ruben Diaz Jr. heard Bronxites speak about the future of the Kingsbridge Armory at a marathon public hearing on Monday, July 27 and promised to “negotiate strong” for a living wage proviso plus schools at the northwest Bronx landmark. Held at Lehman College, the hearing lasted nearly four hours.

In 2008, the city and a community task force chose Related Companies to redevelop the 575,000 square foot armory. Related wants to build a shopping mall and has requested tens of millions of dollars in tax breaks. The armory has been vacant since 1993. If the mall is approved, Related will buy the armory for $5 million.

Public review of the mall plan has provoked debate. Tempers flared at a CB7 public hearing in June when members of the Kingsbridge Armory Redevelopment Alliance, an umbrella group steered by the Northwest Bronx Community and Clergy Coalition and Morton Williams Supermarkets, battled hard hats from Positive Workforce, a minority construction coalition.

KARA demanded that CB7 vote “no” on the mall; Related has yet to sign a binding community benefits agreement. Positive Workforce bellowed for a “yes” vote and construction jobs. CB7 voted yes after Related agreed – in principle – to ten neighborhood-friendly conditions. KARA and Positive Workforce were at it again on July 27, but Diaz Jr. maintained order and in closing struck a conciliatory tone.

“We listened to everyone,” he said. “There were merits on all sides.”

Diaz Jr. gave Related 15 minutes to sell its mall. The developer has set aside 27,000 square feet in the armory head house for the community; it plans to build a “world peace atrium” and a technology center. The mall will generate 1,000 union construction jobs and 1,200 “full-time equivalent” retail jobs. Related also wants to build a public plaza at Kingsbridge Road and Reservoir Avenue.

A handful of speakers, including Yankee Stadium neighborhood activist Joyce Hogi, implored Diaz Jr. to craft a benefits agreement better than those for Yankee Stadium and the Gateway Center, a Related shopping mall in the south Bronx. Lehman College asked Related for a 54,000 square feet campus extension in the armory.

Several speakers shared concerns about traffic and air quality, parking too. Pastors and teens blasted low-wage retail jobs, as did the Fiscal Policy Institute. Mothers reiterated the need for school seats in the northwest Bronx; if the plan is approved and the armory rezoned, the city may build schools in the armory annex. Members of KARA told Diaz Jr. to vote “no” until Related has signed a benefits agreement that guarantees a living wage – $10 an hour plus benefits – for all retail workers at the armory. Related has repeatedly dismissed the possibility.

Members of Positive Workforce recounted their successes working with Related on the Gateway Center. Morton Williams owners and customers begged Diaz Jr. to protect established neighborhood businesses. CB7 has asked Related to lease 60,000 square feet to a supermarket like Whole Foods. Morton Williams has two supermarkets in the neighborhood and employs some 450 Bronx residents. Overall, most speakers sided with KARA. Valentine Avenue resident Lucas de la Noche delivered perhaps the most original snippet of testimony – an energetic verse of spoken word.

“This is our hood, this is our land, so it’s got to be us that makes the plan,” de la Noche said.

Diaz Jr. heads a benefits agreement task force that includes KARA and CB7. Asked whether he would nail an agreement with Related before making his recommendation, Diaz said he would try but didn’t rule out the possibility of a recommendation sans-agreement. He has until August 27, when public review passes to the City Council. Councilmember Maria Baez sent a representative to the hearing. She and the Bronx delegation oppose the lease of armory space to a large supermarket. Only the City Council has the power to block the mall plan; Diaz Jr. doesn’t.

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