Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Whapping Crain's

Alair Townsend, the former Crain's publisher, and now columnist-or calumnist, as it were-lashes out against (subscription only) the opponents of the Kingsbridge Armory development in the latest issue of the magazine; and manages to not only obfuscate the issue, but to also mislead her readers at the same time. Townsend feels that Bronx BP Diaz is, "grandstanding," by opposing the project-and doing so in the face of a 12.5% Bronx unemployment rate.

In her attack on Diaz-and the other opponents as well-Townsend manages to leave out what is the linchpin of the opposition's argument; the fact that the development will be pigging out on over $90 million of tax payer money. Leaving this out, desiccates any kernel of truth in the Townsend screed. The necessity of using our tax money is simply left unaddressed and unacknowledged.

Otherwise, the fact that the Armory will yield 1200 jobs (the developer's estimate that she repeats uncritically), and turn a "white elephant" into a, "beehive of activity," can be characterized-with a bit of tunnel vision, it's true-in a mostly positive light. The tax subsidies, in our view, is a game changer-and gives the opposition, not only the moral high ground, but the economic one as well.

Because, as we have said a number of times before, tax subsidies for retail development are problematic because of the way that they shift rather than create employment. If the Armory mall was the first of its kind in the Bronx, then we might agree that the "risk" entails an incentive-although the Gateway Mall giveaway goes way beyond any risk avoidance, and ends up in the sweetheart deal/sure thing category of investment.

Once, however, it has been demonstrated by the success of Gateway that retailers can flourish in the borough, the use of lavish tax subsidies for this development creates the kind of unlevel playing field that girds the opposition's arguments for some give backs-and the living wage is as righteous a request as any we've seen.

It's righteousness not only devolves from the use of the public money to grease the skids and line the pockets of the developer, but from the fact that the job creation that Townsend extols is a chimera-with the closing neighborhood stores as a punctuation of the failed policy of chain store retail subsidy. So, if mom and pop entrepreneurs are being helped out of business by the looting of their own tax dollars by this Bronx malling, couldn't we at least ask that the new jobs be a bit more than simply minimum wage retail?

Now the issue of a CBA and a living wage can be viewed as somewhat separate and distinct-after all, none of the other CBAs have a living wage component. But Townsend never addresses the substance of the living wage argument-and goes on to make this disingenuous observation about the ULURP process: "There is nothing in the city's land use law that gives the city council the right to pursue its demands. The law specifies that any environmental and traffic issues created by the projects must be mitigated, but it does not allow the council to set wages, mandate union membership or extract cash from developers for uses unrelated to the project at hand."

Which is true only in the narrowest possible interpretation. For you see, there is no other process for the Council to weigh in on the propriety of the use of tax payers money to subsidize the Bloomberg administration's favored developer-and Townsend's belief that, "The Related Companies was chosen by the city after a competitive process," is risible to those of us who know the history, as well as the intimacy, of the relationship.

For Townsend to see the demands being raised as, "just the latest example of zoning for sale," is to elide the patricianage that underlies the slavish aggrandizement of Related for going on eight years-something that the corporate toady hasn't anything to say about. And Townsend also, to our knowledge, never said one thing about how the Bronx Terminal Market was deeded over to Related through an incestuous no-bid arrangement.

And then there's the supermarket issue. Townsend's comments here underscore both her bias and her ignorance: "And they do not want the large supermarket, despite the fact that it could offer lower prices to a cash strapped population..." No mention of the fact that the RFP itself-and the developer responded in kind-proscribed the food use because of the fear that it would be a zero sum game, and would lead to the policy deficit of supermarket closings on contiguous neighborhood strips.

And that is the kind of supermarket initiative that will diminish, and not augment, access to healthier foods, something that the mayor claims he wants to achieve. Making a bad situation that much worse-is the use of our tax money to lower the rent for a large out of town chain food store so that it can compete unfairly against the local markets on the most unlevel of playing fields.

The past eight years have been hell on neighborhood retailers-a process aided and abetted by Bloomberg policies that have, not only raised the cost of doing business on the local shopping strips, but have also pulled customers away from these Main Streets by the over building of malls on the arterial perimeters. A process, we should add, that has elicited nary a peep from the CBA-fixated Townsend.

The fight over the Kingsbridge Armory is a fight for equity-fairness for both workers as well as local store owners. It is also a battle for the soul of the city-and whether we are going to allow the continuation of Bloomberg's policies of corporate welfare at the expense of those who don't frequent the private clubs where these kinds of deals go down.

So Townsend should save her corporate hucksterism for those who resonate to that kind of message: investment bankers and hedge fund managers seeking government bailouts. The Bloomberg five borough development strategy has been an unmitigated disaster for the city-but that reality simply evades the consciousness of those, like Townsend, who perspective is irreparably jaundiced by a big business bias.