Monday, August 03, 2009

The Meaning of the Kingsbridge Armory Battle

As the fight over the development of the Kingsbridge Armory wends its way downtown, it is a good time to reflect on the meaning of the struggle-and its potential impact on the upcoming election cycle. In our view, the Armory fight symbolizes a great deal of what's wrong with the policies of Mayor Mike Bloomberg; and in uncovering some of the underlying meanings in the battle, we can also highlight some significant hypocrisies in the Bloomberg policy portfolio.

In the first place, Mike Bloomberg has been attempting-arguing against the evidence, in our view-to position himself as an environmental crusader. This posturing really emerged, de novo, in his promotion of congestion pricing. The concept was advanced in order to reduce carbon emissions and make New York a healthier city. The pedestrian malling of Times Square is just the latest manifestation of this environmental pretension.

In making the case for Mike the Green Crusader, the mayor wanted us to ignore his own personal life style; one that had multiple houses, a private jet, a helicopter and a boat in its lavish resume. Now none of this new found environmental fervor was really very persuasive to us, but Bloomberg managed to suborn enough enviro groups to give the entire congestion campaign the feel of a moral crusade.

Which brings us to the development of the Armory-situated in an area where asthma rates are conspicuously higher than the city's average. So what will this particular mall contribute to the already over burdened local traffic? Well, according to the developer's own study, traffic at key intersections will be-unmitigatable!

Here’s how the document outlined the severity of the traffic problem: “Under the proposed actions, a minimum of six intersections would experience unmitigatable impacts…The three intersections that would remain unmitigated are the intersections of West Kingsbridge Road and University Avenue, and West Fordham Road at its intersections with the Major Deegan Expressway’s northbound and southbound ramps.”

So, as we have said, in the congestion pricing debate, the mayor argued that we needed to reduce traffic in order to lower harmful emissions and improve the city’s air quality. What’s a particularly useful extrapolation from the mayor’s campaign is the manner in which his allies at the NYC Partnership-and Steve Ross of Related-yes, the same developer now looking to mall the Armory-was front and center; arguing in advertisements that congestion pricing would. The Partnership spent over a $1 million to “research and promote the plan.” (NY Daily News-6/24/2007)

One of the linchpins of the Partnership’s ads was the argument that reducing traffic would have a salutary effect on Black and Latino children who suffer disproportionately from asthma conditions that are exacerbated by increased traffic. So what we have with the Armory development, then, is a self-serving amnesia contracted by Ross and the city. You can’t be for a reduced carbon footprint while simultaneously promoting auto-dependent malls in areas where asthma rates are epidemic.

So, what's also unmitigatible here, is the gall of Mike Bloomberg and Steve Ross. You can't argue for the car cleansing of midtown-making the area safe for all of your limos?-while simultaneously building these auto dependent retail malls in areas where respiratory conditions are more severe than elsewhere in the city. Kingsbridge, then, symbolizes the hypocrisy of the Bloombergistas and the fight against the development becomes, ipso facto, a battle for the kind of reduced carbon foot print that the mayor has tried to claim as his epitaph.

But this isn't all that's wrong in the Kingsbridge Armory struggle-and we'd be remiss if we simply left the argument at this point. The approval of this project without any mitigating living wage agreement would also be representative of the mayor's consistently poor economic decision making.

As we have said elsewhere: "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."

And with retail store vacancies reaching epidemic proportions, the insidious and self defeating nature of this policy becomes apparent. Bill Thompson underscores this point: "Thompson said he thinks the city should be tying tax breaks into the creation of good jobs, “not just during construction, but after construction” as well. He added, “Some of the models [for linking tax breaks to post-construction jobs] that we’re seeing are not part of how the city thinks.”

So, in essence, the fight at the Armory dramatizes the serious faults inherent in the Bloomberg economic worldview-highlighting the inflated fallacies of his five borough plan. Which brings us to the supermarket inclusion question-in a kind of strike three and your out manner.

The city has a major supermarket promotion policy going through the ULURP process. In fact, the first City Planning hearing on this land use proposal will be on Wednesday, August 5th. The plan is meant to address a supermarket gap in so called underserved neighborhoods.The proposed supermarket/big box food use at the Armory is emblematic of all that is wrong with how the city is proceeding on this issue.

Over the past eight or nine years-the city has lost over 300 local supermarkets. So, if indeed there is a gap, than the gap has come as a result of the loss of existing markets. But instead of addressing the disappearance factor-the underlying causes of store closings-City Planning devised an elaborate plan for incentivizing new market penetration in areas it considers to be underserved.

What should be clear is that NYC is losing supermarkets; and that good public policy must address the underlying causes of the disappearance. The current supermarket initiative, however, appears to be a good answer to the wrong question-a non sequitor that won’t remedy the supermarket deficit that it purports to ameliorate.

Building a tax subsidized mega-food store at the Armory dramatizes the fallacy-and underlying false premises-of the city’s well meaning effort to assure better access to fresh food. To allow the Armory development to proceed with this use will lead to the diminution of the number of local supermarkets.

So, there it is in a nutshell. The Armory fight symbolizes the fallacies and faults of a failed Bloomberg environmental and economic development policy-underscoring the mayor's hypocrisy at the same time. If this project is to go forward at all, then, it must exclude any supermarket use that reduces the number of local food stores; and it must provide a living wage that will mitigate the fact that the community will be forced to absorb unmitigatable traffic conditions that will exacerbate the already higher respiratory disease rates that the neighborhood experiences. Its the kind of fight that could define the upcoming mayoral election.