Friday, June 26, 2009

Armory Hearing Questions

The first hearing on the redevelopment of the Kinsbridge Armory was held on Tuesday-and if this meeting is any indication, the land use process is going to be a contentious one. As NY I reports: "Developers and local business owners gathered at a meeting Wednesday night in the Bronx to discuss the plan to turn the Kingsbridge Armory, empty for 20 years, into a massive shopping center... It was a heated debate Wednesday as to what kind of development should be built inside of the old Kingsbridge Armory. The Related Companies, a construction firm, is proposing a massive shopping mall. At Community Board 7's public hearing, Related tried to gain support of the crowd."

Huh? Related's crowd pleasing efforts consisted of apparently hiring a squad of hired goons who goosed stepped chanting into the Lehman College gathering menacing onlookers in the process. Making matters worse, the sixty or seventy member contingent of the non-union Positive Work Force, took up seating that should have been available to the community-but wasn't. As a result, scores of community residents were locked out of the meeting; and, with an apparent violation of the NYS open meetings law, the community board's hearing should be all rights be considered null and void.

The fact is that a public meeting must be held in a venue that is able to accommodate the public that is interested in coming to either simply hear, or to testify about the proposed project. With Tuesday's lock out, however, Community Board #7 didn't hold a valid public meeting; and in our view, will need to hold an additional public gathering before the scheduled July, 14th vote on the redevelopment project (something that area elected officials should insist upon).

The lockout was just the beginning of the problems that the Board is facing. The agenda for the hearing raises serious questions over the impartiality of the review process. In our over twenty five years of participation in community board reviews, we have never seen a pre-hearing schedule set up to purposefully undermine the opponents of a project.

But that's what the board did-bringing in some folks from Co-op City to tell the gathering that there was nothing to fear from the proposed mall. Why? Because they too had a mall in their community and, despite early misgivings, the mall was built and the world didn't come to an end. Here were people with absolutely no connection to the Kingsbridge community-and with no knowledge of the developer's proposed plans-brought in to pre-rebutt opposition arguments; and allowed to do so for an open ended period, while opponents were rigidly restricted to a three minute time frame.

Meanwhile the hundreds of opponents-as well as the locked-out residents and workers-were treated as if they were interlopers by the biased process servers. Surely, the motives and actions of the district manager and the Board's chair need to be investigated. There is enough untoward activities being examined in the borough, to raise serious suspicions about how-and why-the Board is proceeding as it is. There's an old saying that just might be applicable here: "He who pays the piper calls the tune."

Still, we all need to be cognizant of the fact that despite the Board's questionable actions, its decisions are purely advisory; and, as we saw in the case of the Brush Avenue BJs, the city council can and does override a local board if it feels that a project isn't in the public interest. And this one, with its millions of dollars of tax subsidies that will destroy two Morton Williams Supermarkets if it includes a big box food use, clearly is not.

As NYI points out: "The Kingsbridge Armory is larger than Madison Square Garden, meaning that plenty of stores can be put inside the nearly 100 year old building. But workers from local grocery stores are worried over the possibility of a 60,000 square foot supermarket at the Armory. 'With the subsidies that they are receiving from the city and the state, subsidies that we pay in taxes, we never get subsidies.' Said Morton Sloan, president of Morton Williams Supermarkets. 'We pay the taxes for the subsidies of the competition that will turn around and hurt us.'"

So, while the community board machinations are vexing, it is the votees of the local council members that will tell the story when all is said and done in this land use review. And, while we are confident that the council will stand up for local business, we still feel strongly that all of the actions of this community board need to be thoroughly scrutinized. Its behavior on Tuesday was a disgrace to the very idea of a fair and impartial review process.

And as far as Related and this development is concerned, we'll give local community activists the final word: "The Armory project calls the question: What type of development serves New Yorkers best? Will it be one based on the privatized, deregulated, unrestrained and now bankrupt model that brought on our current recession? Or can we do better? Can we meet the community’s need for good jobs that pay a living wage — the bedrock of healthy families and communities? This is what Community Board 7 must decide within the next 30 days. While Community Board 7 deliberates, our job is to hold them accountable. We need to speak out and let our voices be heard."