Clock ticking on Kingsbridge Armory plan

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The clock is ticking on The Related Companies’ plan to redevelop the Kingsbridge Armory and negotiations remain stalled. Related lawyer Jesse Masyr thinks the City Council is determined to deny the shopping mall plan, while some council members consider Mayor Michael Bloomberg responsible for the landmark’s future. Bloomberg is in favor of the plan. Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr. and the Northwest Bronx Community and Clergy Coalition have demanded community benefits.

Masyr described Related’s outlook as “pessimistic.” The mega-developer and the Bronx City Council Delegation remain far apart, and Masyr won’t be surprised if council members from other boroughs follow the Bronx Delegation’s lead, he said. Indeed, Councilman Tony Avella, who chairs the City Council land use subcommittee on zoning and franchises and who held a chock-a-block public hearing to vet Related’s armory plan on Tuesday, November 17, will vote no on the plan as it stands, he said. Of course, City Council Speaker Christine wields serious power and often sides with Bloomberg, he added.

Avella agrees with Diaz Jr. and members of the Kingsbridge Armory Redevelopment Alliance (KARA) who want Related to sign a community benefits agreement that would guarantee retail workers at the planned armory mall living wages - $10 an hour plus benefits. Related is set to acquire tens of millions of dollars in tax breaks at the armory.

“The Bronx has the highest poverty rate of any urban county in the United States,” Diaz Jr. told the subcommittee. “It is time to demand that developers do better.”

Not only does Bloomberg oppose a benefits agreement, Related feels that a living wage requirement would render its shopping mall “unbuildable” – top retailers would refuse to lease at the armory, Masyr said. Avella disagrees.

“If there were [a living wage requirement] maybe one or two tenants would say no,” Avella forecasted. “But enough would say yes. Related is going to make millions off this.”

Council members grilled Related and Deputy Mayor Robert Lieber, who testified on behalf of the plan, KARA leader Desiree Pilgrim-Hunter said. Bronx Delegation members Joel Rivera and Annabel Palma blasted the developer for its refusal to consider a living wage guarantee. Members of KARA stuffed the City Council chamber.

“[Related and Lieber] don’t care about the working poor,” Pilgrim-Hunter said. “[The hearing] was a battle – the people versus a big corporation.”

Related plans to invest $300 million in the armory, which the developer is set to buy from the city for $5 million, and intends to create union 1,000 construction jobs and 1,200 permanent jobs. Masyr expects 500 of the permanent jobs to pay $11.50 an hour or more but Pilgrim-Hunter is certain that most jobs at the mall would pay “poverty wages.”

Bloomberg and Lieber worry that a living wage guarantee at the armory would send a frosty message to retailers everywhere. Related wants to offer community benefits: preference for Bronx contractors and subcontractors, for example. The developer paid $25 million in contracts to minority and women-owned businesses at its Gateway Center shopping mall, Masyr said. But Diaz Jr. and the Bronx Delegation won’t budge on living wages, Masyr noted. He described council members’ questions as “demagoguery.”

Last weekend, Bronx Assemblyman Carl Heastie suggested that Related locate a promised community recreation center away from the armory, lease space reserved for the center to retailers and use the extra revenue to pay the difference between workers’ paychecks and a living wage, Masyr said. Councilman Larry Seabrook suggested that Related use the extra revenue to pay for job training, Masyr added. Related rebuffed Heastie but is intrigued by Seabrook’s idea, Masyr said. KARA would oppose either idea, Pilgrim-Hunter said.

Avella gave Related’s plan a 50-50 chance of success and put the onus on Bloomberg and Quinn. If the mayor changes his mind and encourages Related require living wages, the developer will buckle, he guessed. But if Quinn sides with Bloomberg, the plan could pass without a benefits agreement at all, Avella added.

Concerns related to the planned mall’s potential impact on existing Kingsbridge Heights businesses, traffic and air quality were also addressed at the marathon hearing.

Updated 5:26 pm, October 21, 2011
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