Thursday, September 08, 2005

Community Board Hearing on the BTM

Last night’s joint committee meeting of Community Board 4 was an interesting affair, packed with neighborhood residents, representatives of various elected officials, and a large group of construction workers who boisterously supported Related’s plan to redevelop the Bronx Terminal Market.

Besides these workers, who obviously are interested in obtaining construction jobs, there was quite a bit of skepticism about the developer’s Gateway Mall project at the BTM. Despite the community concerns, the committees approved the project which means that they recommend its approval when the full board meets on Wednesday. The reasons for this poor decision merit a whole other post but for now we’d prefer to discuss what happened before the board members voted.

First, Jesse Masyr, Related’s land use counsel presented the audience with a snazzy 3-D animation which shows what the Gateway Mall will look like. Though technically impressive, the clip actually raises some questions about the project including whether a box-store laden waterfront is really a beautification of the area. Also interesting was Masyr’s response to an audience member who, upon seeing the animated cars whizzing down the Major Deegan, said: “That’s not the Deegan; it’s moving!” Masyr’s joking but revealing response: “It’s must be the early morning.”

After his presentation, community members questioned the land-use counsel about the plan’s potential impact on traffic and asthma, its lack of community inclusion, whether non-union box stores will be present on site and the type of jobs the project will create. In general Masyr, gave inadequate responses that sidestepped the inquiry or misrepresented the true impacts of the project. Here are some of his most audacious claims and our responses:

Masyr: The project is surrounded by over 1 million people and, because of its pedestrian-friendly design, a great number of these people will either walk to the mall or take public transportation

The developer’s EIS predicts that 41% of the mall’s patrons will not travel by car, a claim that is extremely bold and extremely unfounded. Masyr never explained why, besides having pretty streetscapes and being in a city, this Gateway project would not be car-dependent. Did Related interview people within the project’s radius and find that many people would be willing to walk to the redeveloped terminal market? Did they base their findings on similar urban malls where, in fact, there is a high level of walking and public transportation use? The answer to both questions is no; assumptions are made but no evidence is offered to back them up.

A closer look at the EIS also shows Maysr's claim to be ridiculous. According to that document, the Gateway Mall, “would house approximately five large-scale retail stores totaling 755,990 gross square feet…” These stores may include a hardware store, a wholesale club and a department store. So Related wants us to believe that people shopping at BJ’s or Sam’s Club (part of Wal-Mart) are going to walk or take a bus to buy 30 pound boxes of detergent or other bulk items. Do they want us to believe that people from Manhattan are going to walk over the Macombs Dam Bridge with their lumber purchases from a Home Depot? In essence, it is totally inconceivable that only 60% of the people shopping at a box store-anchored mall will use cars. This means that Realted’s traffic estimates are totally off, something we have pointed out previously.
Masyr: The Related Companies are serious about crafting a community benefits agreement (CBA).

The Related Companies are definitely not serious about creating a real CBA as is evidenced by both the process they have engaged in and the benefits they have been offering.

First, a Community Benefits Agreement involves negotiations with a broad spectrum of community-based organizations and Related has not reached out to a single South Bronx housing, environmental, senior, or neighborhood group. The only people the developer have talked to so far are members of BOEDC and the Bronx Borough President’s Office.

Second, CBAs deal with much more than jobs. While the developer’s desire to provide minority and women Bronxites with construction work is admirable, this benefit is only one of many that existing agreements guarantee. Real CBAs deal with mitigating environmental impacts, promoting small business, providing/guaranteeing affordable housing, assisting the education of neighborhood children and much more. Related’s notion of a CBA falls way short.

Third, and perhaps most important, is the fact that legally-binding benefits agreements are negotiated prior to land use review, not during it. The purpose of a CBA is to ensure that a community gets maximum concessions from a developer, especially if the project has potential negative impacts. Now that Related has had its project certified, and the plan is gaining momentum, it has much less incentive to incorporate community demands. Furthermore, because the project has gained approval from City Planning, the developer cannot make significant changes to the designs (e.g. adding affordable housing) without withdrawing and resubmitting its application. Related is not about to do this which means that it is definitely not going to listen to any demands that require altering the project.
Maysr: Traffic, and the related problem of asthma, will not be a problem because we will be making a number of improvements including widening the 149th st. exit ramp on the Deegan and enhancing sidewalks.

Maysr’s claim is very similar to those that Wal-Mart makes all over the country: an extra 100,000 – 200,000 cars can be easily accommodated by minor infrastructure improvements. Before deconstructing this claim it is important to realize that “enhancements” to the Major Deegan may end up being funded by the city or the state. We are unsure at this point who is exactly would pay for ramp improvements but there is no guarantee it will be Related. Therefore, the taxpayer may very well end up subsidizing an exit ramp widening that was only made necessary because of a private development. This is in addition to the subsidies Related is being offered.

But the bigger question is whether, because of these upgrades, the project will have “no significant impact,” as Maysr claimed on Bronx 12, on traffic and asthma. According to the high readings on our bogus meter, it seems Related’s assertion is patently false. Let’s use common sense here: does anyone really think that the impact of an additional 250,000 cars a week will be mitigated by the widening of the 149th street exit ramp? And how does this supposedly more efficient egress point lessen the considerable increase in emissions being released into the South Bronx’s air? What will really happen if this project is built is that the Major Deegan will be even more congested and, as a result of people avoiding that highway, local roads will also become more clogged. This is not only bad for maneuverability but also for a county whose asthma rate is the worst in the nation.

It is important to remember that Related’s air quality and traffic studies are developer-funded. They are self-serving and it makes no sense to trust their evaluations without independent collaboration. As we have mentioned before, an analyst we approached has called Related’s traffic analysis one of the worse he’s even seen. This is why an independent traffic and asthma study is needed, one whose purpose isn’t to get a mall approved but to ensure that a community is not unfairly impacted.