Tuesday, September 08, 2009

Malling Related?

The Kingsbridge Armory fight raises a series of interesting questions-but there is one that really intrigues us: Can enough critical political mass be generated to prevent the Related Cos. from bullying its way to victory in its land use fight; one that steamrolls all of the opposition that has been generated over the development? Up until now, Related has simply had its way with its opponents-losing only once when the Alliance, and its labor allies, cleaned its clock over a BJs on Brush Avenue.

In all of its other battles, Related has been able to use its favored nation status with the Bloomberg/Doctoroff regime, to muscle its way to tax subsidized no-bid victory after traffic congested no-bid victory. It has gotten so badly wired at city hall, that one Bronx council member who did sign the "No supermarket" at Kingsbridge letter told Morty Sloan that it wouldn't do any good since Bloomberg would make sure that, "Related got whatever it asked for."

But now, a real coalition of opposition is building against the plans that Related has put forward on the Armory. It began with the companies slight-of-hand over the siting of a supermarket. As the NY Daily News put it: "The inclusion of a 60,000-square-foot supermarket in the project's environmental impact study sparked controversy because the armory is directly across the street from an existing supermarket, and the city's original request for proposals specifically sought to avoid projects that would compete with the existing local businesses. When the city selected Related as the winning bidder last year, the developer's proposal made no mention of a supermarket."

Then, the contentious issue over a CBA that includes a living wage provision, reared its ugly (from Related's view) head-with the Bronx BP Ruben Diaz leading the charge on behalf of a community coalition that includes the strong support of the RWDSU. The coalition has reached the conclusion that Related will remain intransigent over this provision-leading to the conclusion that the opposition will probably have to try to kill the Armory deal altogether.

Which raises the interesting question of whether it is possible to stop the Related express. It is, but it certainly won't be easy. It will entail mobilizing a wide range of supporters from labor and small business in order to put a full court press on the city council and its leadership-and, hopefully, with the active participation of an energized Thompson campaign. The theme of the effort should be: "No more sweetheart deals for Steve Ross and Related."

We are already seeing the Related gravy train in action down at the site of the old Bronx Terminal Market. Here's what Metro's Pat Arden wrote about that deal:

"Sweetheart deal” was the label critics attached to the $400 million Gateway Mall at the Bronx Terminal Market. How else to explain the tax breaks, cash grants, cheap rent and money-back guarantees that went to handpicked developer Stephen Ross of the Related Companies, a onetime business partner of former deputy mayor Daniel Doctoroff? Now, add millions more to the tab: Taxpayers are on the hook to clean up land that was originally part of the project... In 2004, Related was supposed to pay for a 2-acre Harlem River park, but it later agreed to transfer 7.5 acres of waterfront property to the city in exchange for a $2.5 million rent credit. The city needed part of this land to replace parks lost to the new Yankee Stadium, a Parks rep said. Last week, Parks officials said all the acreage is heavily polluted, pushing the cost of the new parks from $14 million to $56 million."

And how is this deal coming to fruition for the favored Bloomberg developer. As the NY Times has reported, business is booming: "Such was her exhilaration at the neighborhood’s new options that Keila Rivera, 32, a home health aide who lives a 10-minute walk away, visited the mall, at East 149th Street and River Avenue, every day for a week. She bought a Whirlpool washing machine at Home Depot; school supplies for her children, Rafael, 13, and Salsina, 12, at Staples; and clothes and pillowcases at Target. At BJ’s, she picked up bushels of food and cleaning supplies for her patient. “You only have to go inside, and you can find anything,” she said, eating some wings in BJ’s cafe."

Not, however, without collateral damages: "But local businesses fear losing customers, and there is concern even at the closest shopping nexus, at 149th Street and Third Avenue, made up of independent stores and a smattering of national chains." But one sure thing has been demonstrated: a mall can be uber-successful in the Bronx-and larding any large retail development with tax subsidies is a shameful misuse of those funds.

So, Related is in clover with its successful use of its own version of insider trading. Which brings us to Kingsbridge; and while there was the appearance of competitive bidding, those close to the situation know that the eventual winner was never in doubt. But what's of interest here is not that Related was once again favored by the Bloombergistas; but the subsequent goodies that the company was able to gobble up in the post-bid environment.

In the first place, Related was able to purchase the facility for only $5 million-and that's after the tax payers, courtesy of Assemblyman Jose Rivera, helped garner $30 million to rehab the Armory's roof. As the Norwood News reported: "Related is buying the entire historically-landmarked building for a mere $5 million and is set to receive about $50 million in tax breaks and subsidies for the project."

All of these favors and tax subsidies come at the expense of local shopping-at a time when neighborhood shops are struggling big time. The big winner, of course, is Related. But the larger issue, and the central one in the upcoming city council fight over the land use application, is whether the developer, who has benefited so much from the kindness of its friends in government, should be required to share its bounty with the workers at the new mall-the essence of the living wage battle.

And especially when the roaring success of its other mall has been amply demonstrated-underscoring that any retailer who comes to the proposed Shps at the Armory will do quite well, thank you. Paying the workers well is not a high risk venture.

We take it as a given that the supermarket will be excised from the project-but not without preparing to make sure it happens; but the more controversial living wage fight will likely go down to the wire. It's meaning shouldn't be downplayed, however. Are we going to be living in a city where the mayor, New York's richest citizen, is allowed to give carte blanche to his Park Avenue friends at the expense of working people-and struggling small businesses? That should be the theme song of the upcoming battle, a fight that can be won if the coalition that is mobilizing does everything that it needs to do to enlist the support of all of the members of the city council.