Thursday, September 10, 2009

Waging a Fight Over the Kingsbridge Armory

The first city planning hearing on the Related, "Shops at the Armory," development, focused on the presence of an unwanted supermarket in the project. As the NY Daily News reports: "The plans for the Kingsbridge Armory redevelopment were rolled out again on Wednesday in the project's third public hearing, this time for the City Planning Commission. Like previous hearings, Wednesday's was dominated by plans for a huge supermarket for the armory, and its impact on the Morton Williams supermarket across the street."

And the Morton Williams experts were on display-with a heavy dose of ridicule for the idea that a 60,000 square foot mega mart would have no impact on other local markets: "Related lawyer Ethan Goodman reiterated the statement's finding that a 60,000-square-foot supermarket would have "no significant impact" on area businesses. Morton Williams consultant Robert Paulson countered that the statement diluted the impact by selecting a study area larger than appropriate for a supermarket and estimating a sales volume millions of dollars less than supermarkets much smaller in size."

Nothing new here, as liars for hire underestimate in the name of the paying customer. Same holds true for the traffic minimization: "Morton Williams consultants also faulted Related's analysis of traffic impact, saying the study classified the entire development as "destination retail," while big-box warehouse stores, which Related refuses to rule out, typically draw 20% more car traffic."

But the hearing really got interesting as planing commissioners questioned the lawyer Masyr about the Related decision to include a supermarket:

"The consultants repeatedly accused Related of betraying the original city request for proposals, which asked for projects that wouldn't threaten existing businesses, prompting commission Chairwoman Amanda Burden to question Related lawyer Jesse Masyr. Masyr first corrected her reference to the request for proposals, saying, "I believe the wording was 'endeavor not to compete.'" Then he explained that Related included the supermarket in its study at the request of Community Board 7."

But as the News goes on to point out: "Related still has not signed on to a proposed community benefits agreement that would prohibit a supermarket at the site, but the agreement was not discussed at the hearing. Still, opponents of a supermarket have asked the Planning Commission to attach a restriction prohibiting a supermarket to its recommendation even if it votes to move the project forward. Asked directly by Commissioner Irwin Cantor if Related would be open to ruling out a supermarket at the armory, Masyr paused, then replied, "We'd consider it."

So the supermarket exclusion may in fact be getting some traction here-the commission chair's questions are intriguing, and may be a harbinger of things to come. But even if the CPC fails to be proactive on this issue, the city council can-and hopefully will-include a disposition restriction that excludes the unwanted market. All in all, a good day for the local merchants.

The more controversial living wage provision-since it isn't directly germane to the land use application-wasn't taken up by the commission at the hearing. But if the press conference before the gathering is any indication, the aspects of a serious CBA will soon be front and center as the issue moves into the final political arena at the city council.

In fact, the CBA is the centerpiece of Albor Ruiz's incisive column today in praise of Ruben Diaz: "Not all Bronx borough presidents are created equal. This became clear when Ruben Díaz Jr. took a step few believe his predecessor Adolfo Carrión would have taken: He came out against the redevelopment of the Kingsbridge Armory by the Related Companies."

Diaz sets the bar a lot higher than his predecessor Carrion-someone who believes-in the words of author James Lee Burke-in "marrying up, and screwing down." As Ruiz points out: "But while Carrión kept the community at bay during the Gateway Mall negotiations and, for all intents and purposes, gave away the house to Related in exchange for minimal benefits for the community from the developer and the city, Díaz has taken a very different route. "This is an excellent opportunity to set a new paradigm," Díaz said, "where corporate America can come in and make a profit, but do it in a way that truly benefits the community."

Quite a radical concept, no? But Diaz is the new leader, and he has begun to pave a new path-one that may be the beginning of a different approach to development in New York: "That's quite a concept. It's not every day that you find the phrases "corporate America," "make a profit" and "benefit the community" in the same paragraph. What Díaz is referring to is the demand for a living wage for all jobs at the armory shopping mall project. The make-or-break demand is one of nine contained in a comprehensive community benefits agreement Díaz and the Kingsbridge Armory Redevelopment Alliance, a coalition of local groups, businesses and unions, submitted to the developer."

Diaz believes that there should actually be some quid for the community in the quid pro quo: "Díaz, who believes that city tax subsidies should be used for something more than to create poverty-level jobs, disagrees. After all, Related acquired the armory building from the city for a mere $5 million, and was given a whopping $40 million in city taxpayer money subsidizing the redevelopment project in the form of tax breaks and city-funded repairs. Giving something back to the community is the least they should do."

And, as we have also said, the suggestion that a living wage is a deal breaker in the risky Bronx retail environment, simply doesn't hold water after the undeniable success of Gateway Mall: "After the roaring commercial success of the Gateway Mall, Related can no longer argue that by investing in the Bronx it is taking a huge financial risk deserving of special consideration by the city. "It's not a matter of whether it's going to be profitable, but the size of the profit they will make," Stuart Appelbaum, the president of the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union, has said."

So the stage is set for some dramatics-and, as we pointed out, Related's trying to play rope-a-dope: "Related is playing a waiting game, said Richard Lipsky, of the Neighborhood Retail Alliance, representing small supermarkets and food retailers. It can afford to do it because Díaz's recommendation is nonbinding. Approving or rejecting the armory project is up to the City Planning Commission, which will vote next month, and the City Council. If the commission votes in favor of Related, as it could very well happen, then it is up to the Council to approve or reject the plan. And even though the Bronx Council delegation is united against the project unless it includes the benefits agreement, that may not be enough to either force Related to do what is right for the community or to scuttle the project. A showdown will be dramatic on this heated topic."

But clearly, this fight is just getting started, and development in this city is beginning to have a new face. The Kingsbridge Armory may become the turning point for how all projects are viewed in the years ahead.