Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Kingsbridge Malling

In this week's Village Voice, Tom Robbins critiques the city's plan to mall the Kingsbridge community without any provision for living wage jobs-and finds another example of why, in spite of Mike Bloomberg's obscene spending spree, many New Yorkers are not enamored with his continued rule:

"Michael Bloomberg remains an overwhelming favorite for re-election, even as polls keep finding that most New Yorkers would just as soon someone else took over at City Hall. It's the riddle of Campaign 2009. Chalk it up to uninspiring opponents, the advantages of incumbency, and the results of $36 million worth of electoral carpet-bombing by an incumbent taking no chances. Whatever the reasons, despite all that costly self-promotion, scratch any surface and you'll find voters who are less than thrilled with Mayor Mike's performance, but who don't see the obvious alternative. Take, for example, those involved in the nasty development battle now being waged in the Kingsbridge Heights section of the Bronx.

And last week the opposition to the malling of the Kingsbridge Armory took to the streets-and was joined by mayoral hopeful Bill Thompson who, while he took some time to get revved up, finally found his voice: "Last Wednesday night, Bloomberg's top Democratic challenger, Bill Thompson, stood in front of a standing-room-only crowd of more than 400 local residents and union members gathered at Our Lady of Refuge on East 196th Street. Thompson got only polite applause when he was introduced by Desiree Pilgrim-Hunter, leader of a coalition of community and labor organizations calling itself Kingsbridge Armory Redevelopment Alliance. But the city comptroller pulled a deafening roar as soon as he said that he wouldn't vote for Bloomberg's proposal for a new city-subsidized shopping mall at the huge old armory on West Kingsbridge Road, unless the developer agrees that new jobs there will pay decent wages."

And the comptroller is right; but left out another important reason for why the mall is a bad idea. As we pointed out yesterday, we are experiencing an incredible assault on the viability of all neighborhood businesses-with store vacancy rates approaching 15% in the outer boroughs. Much of this can be attributed to, not only the national recession, but to Mike Bloomberg's tax and regulatory policies that are epitomized by his willingness to raise the sales tax in the middle of this neighborhood retail disaster.

Another reason, is that the mayor, always ready and willing to promote large retail development, has successfully advocated a permissive policy of mall development that has sucked the life out of those neighborhood stores that are the lifeblood of a community. Here's why the advocates-as well as the comptroller-are dead on when it comes to their living wage battle. If you're going to continue to promote mall development-with its concomitant chain store proliferation-than minimally, these stores must provide the kind of living wages that families can live on. Otherwise, we have simply replaced the locally owned neighborhood business-ones that circulate dollars through the community-with a chain that removes revenue, and whose dollars fail to circulate in as healthy a manner.

Which gets us to the plan for the inclusion of a supermarket at the armory-and the bait and switch that the developer has attempted to pull off:

"This time around, City Hall's new request for developer proposals included language aimed at discouraging big-box stores...When Bloomberg's team finally settled on a developer it liked for the project, lo and behold, it was an administration favorite: Steve Ross and his Related Companies. The builder counts both Bloomberg and former deputy mayor Dan Doctoroff (now running the mayor's mighty corporation, Bloomberg LP) among his close pals and has been chosen to handle several other development projects by Bloomberg's administration, including the redevelopment of the old Bronx Terminal Market, for which he didn't even have to compete against anyone else.Still, Related is a union contractor, and it would have been fine with everyone if not for another bait and switch. After initially describing the components of what it quaintly dubbed "The Shops at the Armory," the developer quietly let it be known that it would seek a 50,000-square-foot supermarket for the site. Such a mega-market, enjoying its share of the project's $18 million in city tax breaks, would have a strong, competitive edge over a pair of long-standing nearby family-owned supermarkets that have contracts with the Retail, Wholesale, and Department Store Union covering some 150 workers."

So the mall, which originally was encouraged to provide living wage and non-competing box stores, is now proposing the opposite; and, as regards to the supermarket, Bloomberg is actually threatening to worsen the plight of access to fresh food in low income neighborhoods by allowing for the inclusion of a mega food store that will drain the local dollars and lead to to loss of four or five of the local supermarkets.

This, at a time when New York's junior senator has reported that the Bronx is the most obese of all the boroughs-and one major reason is the dearth of supermarket access: "Andrew G. Rundle, an epidemiologist at Columbia’s Mailman School of Public Health and an authority on obesity, said that at the neighborhood level, socioeconomic and demographic factors were the strongest predictors of obesity rates...Dr. Rundle, who has written several papers on neighborhood environments and obesity, has found that even when adjusting for poverty and race, at least three factors are associated with lowering obesity: proximity to supermarkets and groceries where fresh produce is sold; proximity to parks; and access to public transportation, which reduces reliance on cars."

So who's being a fathead here? The mayor has stated policy goals of promoting healthy eating, yet has oversaw the loss of more than 300 neighborhood supermarkets because his economic policies run counter to the his professed health goals. And by the way, getting people to eat healthier doesn't only mean that they need to have decent supermarket access; they also need to be able to earn enough money to be able to afford to eat well-hence the living wage arguments.

So the fight over the Kingsbridge Armory is an important symbol of what's wrong with the Bloomberg reign. He has failed to promote and protect local stores-particularly the vital supermarket/fresh produce nexus-and has even exacerbated the problem by making it more difficult to do business in the city's neighborhoods. A policy of higher taxes and more regulations, when combined with the continued malling of the city, has generated a severe economic crisis-one that the nimble chief executive now argues needs his expertise-and his alone-to solve.

In out view, the best thing Bloomberg can do is to step aside, since his re-election would be a classic example of a Pyrrhic victory. As General Pyrrhus said, after beating the Romans in a particularly bloody battle: "If we are victorious in one more battle with the Romans, we shall be utterly ruined." And, in similar fashion, so will NYC-and neighborhood retailers- be ruined should Bloomberg prevail on this third term quest.