Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Kingsbridge's Last Stand?

The first city council hearing on the controversial Kingsbridge Armory redevelopment plan will take place today-with a press conference scheduled at 1:00 PM on the steps of city hall-and there doesn't seem to be much movement yet towards a settlement. As the NY Daily News reports, the project has generated more opposition than any other such land use application that has come before the council in the past eight years: "The Council's subcommittee on zoning and franchises will hear testimony on a project which the subcommittee chairman, Tony Avella, said has generated a surprising wave of opposition. "There is more opposition to this project than any I've seen come to the committee since I've been the chair," said Avella, who has headed the committee for eight years. "And the opposition is at a higher level than I've seen before."

And, as the NY Times tells us, the line in the sand is over the question of whether the retailers in the project will pay their workers a living wage: "The dispute has escalated as the plan has moved forward, with the commission’s 8-to-4 vote leading to a public hearing before the City Council’s Land Use Committee set for Tuesday. But if the armory battle has become a high-stakes stare-down over wages at the mall, neither side is showing any sign of blinking. A coalition of political, religious, labor and local leaders has demanded that every new job at the Armory offer a “living wage” — $11.50 an hour, or $10 with benefits, compared with the minimum wage of $7.25 an hour. They argue that since the developer, Related Companies, will receive millions in tax breaks and incentives for the project, some of those benefits should be passed on to the community."

And while Related claims that this is a deal killer, the Times suggests otherwise: "Nearly 200 cities already require developers using public money to pay more than the minimum wage, though the salaries vary from project to project, said Peter Dreier, a professor at Occidental College in Los Angeles who has studied wage issues. He said businesses generally do not suffer as a result. “In every city in the country with living-wage laws, developers claim that this will kill their project, but they’re just crying wolf,” Professor Dreier said. “There’s no evidence at all that living-wage laws have a negative impact on specific businesses or the larger business climate.”

Everyone's initial attention is focused on Avella's Zoning and Franchises Subcommittee, whose nine members hold the fate of the project in their hands. Four years ago, the committee's reluctance to approve a BJs that the Alliance opposed led to Related withdrawing its application to avoid a humiliating defeat. At this juncture, it doesn't appear that Related has enough votes to get its approval as the united Bronx delegation has been lobbying furiously for its living wage concept.

As delegation head Annabel Palma tells us, the delegation has never been as united as it is today-and she believes that Speaker Quinn will support the Bronx. Still, while the living wage is the bone of contention it is traffic that will be the focus of the land use application. And the traffic will be a nightmare-particularly if the plans for a mega supermarket aren't excluded from the plan.

As the Daily News points out: "Another controversial aspect is traffic congestion, which the developer's own study admits cannot be avoided at several surrounding intersections. A traffic study commissioned by project opponents suggests that the resulting delays would increase vehicle emissions by 93% over current conditions in a neighborhood that is already plagued with high asthma rates...Critics also say the plan offers just 400 parking spaces for a 600,000- square-foot mall, compared with the 3,300 spaces Related built for its newly opened million-square-foot Gateway Plaza a few miles to the south. The concern is that the area's narrow streets will be snarled with cars double-parking and cruising for metered spaces."

The Armory fight is the maiden city wide political voyage for Bronx BP Ruben Diaz, Jr,, and he is making the most of it. As the Times says: "Bronx Borough President Rubén Díaz Jr. stood before a raucous crowd and vowed to continue fighting a “new revolution.” “You cannot mess with us anymore,” he yelled. “You want to do business, we can do business, but business has to be good for everybody.” Mr. Díaz wound up his speech, at the annual meeting of the Northwest Bronx Community and Clergy Coalition, to cheering that drowned out his words. He spoke just days after the City Planning Commission voted last month to approve the very development plan he hoped to change."

Diaz is a breathe of fresh air when contrasted with his predecessor, and the deals that were cut on Yankee Stadium and the Related Gateway Mall project: "The struggle is colored by residual anger over community benefits agreements signed in connection with the new Yankee Stadium and the nearby Gateway Mall, also built by Related, that critics called weak and overly accommodating to the developers. Those deals were negotiated during the tenure of Mr. Díaz’s predecessor, Adolfo Carrión Jr."

Clearly, a new day-and a new paradigm for development-is dawning in the Bronx; and it may well be sweeping down into city hall as well. Right now the opponents are in a strong position-and it does appear that the supermarket inclusion may be totally off the table-but the final decision is still not yet made since the push back from the mayor hasn't been seen in its full fury. Still, the mayor may be the 500 pound gorilla, but his close election may have diminished his full force at the council-witness the parking meter vote yesterday.

We'll see how this plays out over the next few weeks. But one thing is for certain, in eight years Related has never experienced the kind of intense and organized opposition that KARA, the RWDSU, and the local supermarket owners have generated on this development. In our view, things will never be quite the same.