Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Food Fight at the Armory

Now we've been in the forefront of the fight to make sure that NYC neighborhoods have access to good supermarkets, so it may be a bit incongruous to those not really acquainted with the facts, that we're not happy with the possibility of a large supermarket in the Kingsbridge Armory. The possibility is being raised in this week's Norwood News by CB#7 chair Greg Faulkner and the board's land use chair, Ozzie Brown: "Brown and other members talked about the need for fresh produce and that a priority for it would be to get a top-notch grocery store into the Armory like a Whole Foods. In response, Masyr said, “I don’t find that at all problematic.”

Now what's wrong with this is the fact that the borough's first major supermarket, MortonWilliams Associated, lies directly across from the armory project. This is the market that stayed in Kingsbridge even when all of the area's major retailers were fleeing in the 1970s-the store that was remodeled to the tune of over two million dollars so that the neighborhood would have a state of the art food store.

In testimony before the City Council a few years ago when the armory development was first discussed, Morton Sloan, the store's owner, laid out the history: "Our Bronx store became our flagship store and, over the years, we have established ten other, mostly Manhattan based supermarkets. In spite of this geographic diffusion we hire almost all of our employees from the Bronx neighborhood where we first started. We know the people and, over the years, have hired their children and even their grandchildren. Many neighborhood kids got their first job at Associated and we still see them come back into the neighborhood after they have become successful in other areas of life. Last year we employed over 650 Bronx residents. Our Bronx store is also our corporate headquarters and the spiritual center of our business."

These are all good union jobs, with pensions and benefits we're talking about, and the Sloans also bought an renovated another supermarket down the road at Fordham and Jerome. These are not the kind of local businesses that you look to hurt when you redevelop an area; and this is not a neighborhood that can easily accommodate another market so close to two that are already servicing the community.

In addition, the siting of a larger regional store will have a serious impact on the neighborhood traffic. The comments of the community board's district manager here are unwittingly ominous: "CB7 District Manager Fernando Tirado said he wanted the Armory to be a big draw from outside the Bronx. Masyr said Related needed it to be a big draw for the project to be fiscally viable, calling the project “extraordinarily expensive.”

So much for concerns about asthma and congestion we guess; and wasn't it Related that led the charge for the mayor's congestion tax? As the Daily News points out: "Related is also contracting out for an environmental impact study that will then be distributed to community members who can weigh in about their environmental concerns for the project." Just like the one that was done to minimize the traffic at the Gateway Mall on "asthma alley." We desperately need an honest broker here.

So now we enter the CBA dance, with Related as the orchestra leader. Here's the NY Daily News' take: "A Bronx community board involved with the development of the long-dormant Kingsbridge Armory is making sure it gets an early start in talks with the selected developer. Community Board 7 held the first of a series of planned meetings last week with developer Related Companies that will address residents' demands for the $310 million redevelopment of the vast armory on W. Kingsbridge Road and Jerome Ave. The developer's plans reportedly include at least one big-box-style retailer, a cinema, a fitness center, a bank branch and a large community space."

Oh boy! We wonder where this puts KARA, the community coalition that has been formed to advocate for the neighborhood? As the News points out: "Related was criticized for its community benefits agreement for the development of the Gateway Mall, because terms such as minimum wage requirements were impossible to enforce." Among a host of other things.

The one thing we do know is that we will fight any attempt to put a competing (likely non-union) food use at the armory. As Morty Sloan put it in his testimony: "To superimpose hundreds of thousands of square feet of big box retail on this neighborhood, or any neighborhood, will simply destroy the quality-of-life of the local communities. The same pattern of abandonment that we have seen all over the country will repeat itself in this area of the Bronx. The big box cannibals will not only destroy my store, they will suck the economic life out of Fordham Road and the smaller commercial strips nearby, in as pattern that will be repeated throughout the city...

The “oases” we create will in turn create retail deserts everywhere else. What this means is that thousands of businesses that have struggled just like mine did through the economic hard times, will be put on the endangered species list. Business owners, and their well-compensated workforce, with long established roots in the community will be replaced by largely non-union national chains with absolutely no concern for a local neighborhood. For these mega retailers New York City will be just another profit center -- for us, however, it’s our home."