Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Related: Hard of Hearing

Yesterday's land use hearing on the Kingsbridge Armory was remarkable because of the sheer level of opposition the project has generated. We have yet to see this kind of opposition in the eight years of the Bloomberg tenure. And in over twenty five years of lobbying on land use items before the city council, we have never seen a project move forward to the final stage with so many critics looking to scuttle the development-and in this case, to do so if it doesn't include a living wage.

At this juncture, we believe there is not a single council member on the Zoning and Franchises Subcommittee who would vote for the project as is-it seems as if there is something in the plan to alienate everyone for one reason or another. Still, the level of vitriol was unprecedented; and the diminished respect for Mayor Bloomberg and his administration was palpable among the council members at the hearing.

What struck us about the testimony of Related and Deputy Mayor Lieber was a level of disingenuousness that was, however, quickly dismissed by the council inquisitors. On the one hand, Related's Jesse James Masyr, claimed that the project couldn't be tenanted if a living wage was a requirement for the retailers at the proposed mall. On the other hand, he was quick to tell the council that Related's Gateway Mall was, "wildly successful," suggesting that retailers should be salivating to grab a piece of the Bronx market.

This is a point we have made elsewhere. If this were the first Bronx mall, than a degree of caution could be expected. But it isn't, and as the NY Times reported yesterday, giving credence to our position-one that was reinforced by the powerful testimony of RWDSU president Stuart Appelbaum: "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.”

But those real world results make little impression on certain knee jerk, pro-development advocates. Over at Crain's, the paper inveighs against the living wage component as a deal killer (subsc.):

"The facts are simple. The armory has been vacant for more than a decade. After many fits and starts, the Bloomberg administration crafted a plan to redevelop it for retail use, allocating about $70 million in government incentives to make the project feasible. The Related Companies won a competition for the $310 million project. The local community board supports it. The logic is clear: The Bronx needs all the help it can get.Unfortunately, politics in the Bronx don't work that way. The new borough president and a group of clergy are demanding that Related guarantee something called living-wage jobs—at a legislated, not market-rate, salary, and with health benefits.This provision would kill the project, because no national retailers will agree to it. Why should they, when the other boroughs and the surrounding suburban communities embrace their jobs without restrictions? If turned away by the Bronx, they will follow Costco's example and position their stores to lure Bronx residents without putting any jobs in the borough."

Not content to editorialize just on the wage issue, Crain's goes on to take the Alliance to task for its advocacy on behalf of local supermarkets: "Further muddying the waters is a group called the Neighborhood Retail Alliance, which is mobilizing to stop the project as well. Missing from most coverage of its efforts is the fact that the alliance's spokesman is being paid for his efforts by local supermarkets seeking to stifle a new rival. Surely, residents of the Bronx, who have fewer shopping opportunities than people who live in any other borough, need more retail competition, not less."

Now we appreciate the shout out from Crain's inimitable editor, Greg David, we should point out that the Alliance's spokesman, your truly, is recognized by one and all as the lobbyist for local supermarkets-and is registered as such. Now maybe we should announce this every time we post, but we think that our readers are savvy enough to follow the arguments and avoid the ad hominen.

It should also be mentioned, that these local supermarkets have never received anything like the $70 million+ that Related's getting to possibly out a competitor in their path. And we would invite David to visit the are to see the 17 supermarkets that do business within a quarter mile of the Armory. That we be more productive than regurgitating administration talking points.

But we digress. Back to the hearing-and on the point that Crain's raises about supermarkets-Deputy Mayor Lieber was a font of misinformation, and disinformation, on this topic. He, like Masyr, repeated the fact that the local community board had supported the project with a supermarket, while eliding the fact that the board was looking for an "organic market," and not necessarily a full service one. In addition, the board subsequently signed on to the Bronx BP's no supermarket CBA proposal-a fact not alluded to by Lieber or Masyr.

Be that as it may, Lieber went on to discuss the city's "Fresh Initiative," a policy designed to encourage new supermarkets in so-called underserved areas-of which Kingsbridge Heights is one. Lieber, perhaps unaware of the details of the city's proposal, avoids mentioning the fact that the Initiative restricts supermarkets to be no larger than 30,000 sq. ft.-half the size of Related's proposed market. He also fails to point out-and to do so might diminish the credibility of the City Planning report that underlies the Fresh concept-that the two mile trade radius has over twenty five local markets; hardly the retail desert that city planners portray.

As we said, cited in the KARA press release: "Concern was also expressed about the effects on neighborhood businesses if national retailers open up stores in the publicly subsidized mall. "A 60,000 sq. ft. tax subsidized supermarket at the Kingsbridge Armory, in violation of the city's own request for proposal, would lead to the disappearance of at least four and possibly as many as six neighborhood supermarkets-as has been the case of other mega market projects on New York City," said Richard Lipsky, spokesman for the Neighborhood Retail Alliance. "This kind of impact runs counter to the city's expressed goal of preserving neighborhoods markets, and would lead to less access to the very fresh fruits and vegetables that the city feels is vital for the health of low income New Yorkers. The Armory project then is bad for local business and makes little public policy sense."

The subject of the supermarket was also brought up by Council member Felder who was upset by the fact that it seemed to violate the spirit, if not the letter, of the city's own RFP-an issue we have discussed. But what got our interest here, was that the RFP also urged the successful bidder to seek to have its tenants pay a living wage-a goal that both the city and Related have abandoned.

What is very clear now, however, is that KARA, the RWDSU and the local supermarket owners have out-lobbied EDC and Related-at least up until this point! It is certainly not time for opponents to get complacent, but with the votes not there for approval, it will be up to the supporters of the project to figure out how to negotiate terms that can be accepted by the KARA coalition, and the council itself. The end game, while near, isn't in the cross hairs just yet. But if we hear the Fat Lady gargling, we'll let you know.