Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Marketing for Principles

The dispute over whether to put a supermarket at the Kingsbridge Armory broke into the pages of the NY Times, with the living wage fight and the role of KARA front and center: "Many neighborhoods are clamoring for supermarkets, and the Bloomberg administration has a plan to encourage new supermarkets in underserved areas through tax incentives and zoning changes. But a coalition of 19 community, church and labor groups that has worked for years to encourage redevelopment of the armory has taken a contrarian position. The coalition, known as the Kingsbridge Armory Redevelopment Alliance, says it will seek to block the $350 million redevelopment project unless Related agrees, among other things, to exclude a supermarket or grocery store."

The,"among other things" is, of course the issue of a living wage: "Earlier this month, the Bronx borough president, Rúben Díaz Jr., formally opposed the project because Related had not agreed to the alliance’s demands, including what it says are its top priorities: a guaranteed “living” wage for all mall employees and mandatory procedures for hiring local residents. The City Planning Commission is expected to vote on the project next month and the City Council by the end of the year."

The Bloomberg administration has apparently done an about face on the issue of community benefits agreements-supporting others, but not in this case where its favored son Related is resisting negotiating in good faith: "Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, who in the past has supported the efforts of community groups to forge their own pacts with developers for projects like Atlantic Yards in Brooklyn, is now adamantly opposed to so-called community benefits agreements. City officials say that benefits to local residents should be considered as part of the public approval process, not in separate agreements."

This methodology would limit the role of communities and would place all of the responsibilities in the hands of elected officials-and do so in the middle of a process that isn't conducive to real negotiations. And in any case, as we saw with the Bronx Terminal Market and Yankee Stadium, Bloombergistas were content to allow for the most tawdry kinds of CBAs-ones crafted by developers like Related in collusion with a self-serving borough president Carrion-and to come out now in opposition to the KARA-driven CBA that contains real principles and benefits is simply shameful.

As for the comments from Seth Pinsky on the supermarket, they simply reflect his background and lack of any real knowledge about what the hell is going on in the city's neighborhoods: "Seth W. Pinsky, president of the city Economic Development Corporation, said the split over the supermarket illustrated the flaws inherent in these pacts. “On the one hand you have groups that are claiming to represent the communities saying no to grocery stores,” he said, “while on the other hand there are community groups saying we desperately need more grocery stores.”

Would someone get that man a breathalyzer. The fact of the matter is that the clamor Pinsky is hearing is the sound of one hand clapping-and avoids confronting a number of harsh realities-the first being that where there is clamor, East Harlem for instance, it is because of all of the local supermarkets that have been driven out of the neighborhood (under Bloomberg's watch) by the high cost of doing business. Secondly, absent Greg Faulkner's one man crusade, there has been no clamor in Kimgsbridge, where scores of local markets have invested in the neighborhood and don't deserve to be threatened by a tax subsidized competitor.

And the Times highlights our role-and alludes to the struggle over Pathmark in East Harlem: "The supermarket fight is reminiscent of a battle waged a decade ago in East Harlem against the suburban-size and highly successful Pathmark store on 125th Street and Lexington Avenue. A crucial player in that struggle, Richard Lipsky, the lobbyist for the smaller markets that opposed Pathmark’s entry into East Harlem, is representing Morton Williams. In June, Mr. Lipsky’s office inadvertently sent reporters a memo to his clients in which he outlined a strategy for defeating the project or significantly modifying it “in a direction that is acceptable to Morton Williams’ interests.”

Left out here, is the fact that the erosion of local East Harlem supermarkets began with the incursion of the tax subsidized Pathmark-a chain that is rapidly deteriorating in service in its inner city stores, and is at risk of collapse-awash in red ink. Now wouldn't that be a kick in the head?

Which brings us to the interjection of the UFCW's Local 1500 in the current fight: "The dispute has threatened to pit two unions against each other. Morton Williams employees are represented by the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union. Dozens of members showed up last week to hear Richard L. Trumka, the newly elected president of the A.F.L.-C.I.O., praise the Kingsbridge alliance as a model community involvement. At a rally in front of the armory, Mr. Trumka said the building could either become the heart of the surrounding area or it could become “a profit center for people outside the community.” Large supermarkets in the New York area are represented by the United Food and Commercial Workers Union Local 1500, however. Pat Purcell, director of special projects for the local, said an operator like Pathmark could bring in hundreds of union jobs. “If we knew it was a unionized employer, it would be very difficult for us not to be supportive,” he said."

So, let's get this straight. 1500 would do what here? It would support the intrusion of a tax subsidized competitor-as long as it had its own members employed-even though it would put another union shop that's been in the Bronx for years out of business. This unfortunate stance is reminiscent of the building trades support for some non-union box stores, as long as their own members are doing the construction-a circumstance that Purcell, and the entire UFCW, has bemoaned for ages. Clearly, the so-called sister local should have exercised more discretion here; especially when the history of its opposition to development is well known.

As one observer points out, excluding a supermarket in this case can make a great deal of sense: "But John Goldstein, the national program director for the Partnership for Working Families, which provides technical assistance to local organizations, including the Kingsbridge alliance, said it was important to protect local businesses that were willing to invest in a low-income community when other businesses would not."

Which underscores the more principled argument that Purcell seeks to elide-the need for good jobs-and the protection of businesses that have invested in the community and do provide them. It is only by ignoring the larger principled stand of KARA that we can get the caught in the exclusivity-and heat-of the supermarket struggle. The supermarket is, in this case, a symbol of the larger stand on principle.

But clearly, Related understands this, and is trying to use the supermarket issue in order to make an end run around the more challenging living wage fight: "In the end, Related is not likely to allow the proposed supermarket exclusion to be a deal breaker, said Jesse Masyr, Related’s lawyer. “We’re not going to be stupid about this,” he said. But he said the company would not give in on the living wage demand because prospective tenants would not accept it. “We don’t believe tenants are going to sign leases that would put them in default if they didn’t live up to the wage commitment,” Mr. Masyr said. Related has signed a living wage agreement in the past — for a stalled project in downtown Los Angeles — but only because it was required to do so by local laws, he said."

The survival of Morton Williams is paramount because of what it would represent-a victory, not only for a local business, but for a development principle that is more important than ever as unemployment reaches record levels and small businesses collapse: "A 20,000-square-foot Morton Williams store on Kingsbridge Road and Jerome Avenue, one of 12 supermarkets operated by the company in the New York area, is opposite the elevated subway tracks and the armory and also houses the company headquarters. Valerie Sloan, a vice president, said the company made a point of hiring from the Bronx and had never wavered in its commitment to the borough. She said 500 of the company’s 750 employees lived within 10 blocks of the Kingsbridge store, which opened in 1956. “When the Bronx was burning, we stayed here,” Ms. Sloan said. Mr. Lipsky said Morton Williams had invested $12 million in the last few years to upgrade the Kingsbridge store and had added organic products in response to requests from the community board."

The Sloans' commitment to the Bronx is an essential feature of what's being fought for here-but it is just one piece of an overall new paradigm for development. We'll give Stuart Appelbaum of the RWDSU the last word here: "We refer to the union's efforts to insure that when projects are tax subsidized, the jobs that are created will be those with the kind of wages and benefits that can support a family. As union head Stuart Appelbaum has said: "I don't buy that assumption," said Stuart Appelbaum, president of the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union. "It's not a matter of whether it's going to be profitable, but the size of the profit they will make." Living wage advocates point to the $40 million in city taxpayer money subsidizing the armory project in the form of tax breaks and city-funded repairs. "If they are taking from government," said Appelbaum, "they have to give back to the community."