Monday, December 28, 2009

Setting the Record Straight on Kingsbridge

We have grown both tired and irritated over the litany of false aspersions leveled at the successful opponents of the failed Kingsbridge Armory development. What has been noticeably absent from relentless barrage, is any historical perspective-and an honest recognition of the dishonest role played by the developer and the city's economic development officials.

To understand this a little better it is necessary to go back three years, to the time when-after much hard work by the community-EDC finally issued its RFP for the Armory. Here's how we described the, "Kingsbridge Armory Victory," at that time:

"For the past six years we have been working closely with the Northwest Bronx Concerned Community and Clergy Coalition on crafting a neighborhood friendly plan for the development of the Kingsbridge Armory. For a good part of this time NWBCCC was led by the indefatigable Mary Daily and she was succeeded by the very capable James Mumm. Now, finally, as the NY Daily News reports this morning, an RFP has been issued, and it looks like the community's voice has been heard."

Now take a hard look at what the city said it was looking for: "As the News points out, "The request addressed many of the concerns cited by community stakeholders, such as the need for schools and the impact on existing neighborhood businesses." When did you ever hear a statement like that coming from an EDC RFP? The RFP goes on to say that "Negative economic effects will be mitigated by ensuring the developer's proposed tenants 'endeavor to not duplicate or directly compete with existing retail."

Our response was almost euphoric-and we hailed the recognition about the need to avoid hurting local business, particularly the MortonWilliams Supermarket directly across the street: "It has been made clear all along by all members of the community coalition that a food selling box store was simply unacceptable. Much of this sentiment emerged because of the community's respect for Morty Sloan and his MortonWilliams Supermarket. The Sloans' store was the first real supermarket built in the Bronx and Morty hires all of the employees for his other markets (many of which are in Manhattan) from this Kingsbridge Heights neighborhood."

Of course, we tempered our enthusiasm knowing that a developer had yet to be selected: "This is a pathbreaking event in the city's development history but we would caution everyone who has a stake in the development to not take any long vacations, confident that the potential problems surrounding the Armory have all disappeared. The key word in the above quote is "endeavor."It is now up to all of us who have worked to protect the existing retail base to remain vigilant so that "endeavor" has the appropriate teeth. One developer has already pitched the Task Force but all bids will have to be reviewed by EDC and than go through the ULURP process."

But let's step back for a second, and focus on the other RFP item mentioned-"the need for schools." Now we know that this was probably the number one objective of the community coalition-along with the need for recreational space. Yet, all of this disappeared when Related, the eventual successful bidder, unveiled its "Shops at the Armory" vision.

For a more comprehensive historical overview, go to Jordan Moss' Bronx News Network piece-and you'll see how important the educational mission for the Armory was to the community: "In 1998, the Northwest Bronx Community and Clergy Coalition, a main force behind the Kingsbridge Armory Redevelopment Alliance (KARA),began organizing residents and translating community ideas into architectural blueprints, with the assistance of Joan Byron and the Pratt Center. The plans included 2,400 school seats, a movie theatre, a green market, restaurants and a sports complex."

Funny, we missed all of these ideas in the final Related cookie-cutter mall design; but the larger point here is that, while the city rejected the community's comprehensive educational and recreational vision for the Armory, its RFP at least attempted to do justice to the desires expressed by the Northwest Bronx coalition. Related, with all of its usual arrogance, simply went in another direction-and frog-marched EDC along with it.

As BNN points out: "Unfortunately, little is recognizable in Related's plan from those original blueprints the Coalition hammered out with Pratt and later iterations from KARA. Related is not calling the project Shops at the Armory for nothing. It’s a shopping mall pure and simple."

Now the obvious point here is that Related is an excellent real estate developer-when it doesn't have to engage a local community in any kind of real dialogue. Its selection to develop the Armory, therefore, was a colossal mistake; since it would require the designee to work closely with the community, and try to develop the project in tune with its wishes. Related's subsequent sleight-of-hand was-as we told KARA's Ava Farkas at the time-to be expected.

But all of this bait and switch dishonesty is elided by a myopic and biased media more interested in demonizing Bronx officials and the heroic efforts of the RWDSU than in reporting the truth about Related's arrogant tactics. And Moss, who has been on this issue longer than probably anyone else, makes this salient point about why living wage had been elevated into such an iconic like demand by the community: "So, that’s why the living wage demanded by KARA is so important. If the project, say, included three schools and funding for a community center, maybe budging on the living wage would make sense. But it doesn’t include those things or anything else the community badly needs."

Which is a corollary to the point that we had made-but in reference to the impact that the mall would have on the surrounding neighborhood retail shopping strips. As we pointed out: "In the case of this development, tens of millions of tax dollars are being used to subsidize the project-one that, when finished, will likely siphon millions of dollars away from the small businesses at nearby Kingsbridge and Fordham Roads; retailers that have been devastated by the current recession as well as the economic policies that the NY Post writes about so movingly. For these entrepreneurs, the proposed mall is like a bus ticket out of town."

And the euphoria of the local merchants at the demise of the project, underscores our point. As the Norwood News reports: "Many area merchants celebrated the City Council’s vote. These merchants feared a mall in the Armory would bring competition from big-box stores and cause unappealing traffic congestion."

And, as we went on to say: "In our view, the building of box stores in the Armory-of whatever stripe-creates an undue pressure on neighborhood commerce. If the developer can't agree on providing a living wage, than the development simply isn't worth doing-especially when small retailers are reeling. So, in some sense, the die is being cast here, and the fate of the Armory, while still up in the air, is becoming precarious because the city chose a developer that hasn't been accustomed to compromise."

So it was Related-and its lapdogs at EDC-that provoked this unnecessary fight and made the final confrontation inevitable; something that has been lost in all of the sour grapes back biting from the trades, the mayor, and their obsequious scriveners in the media. If the city is going to do planning in cooperation with the local impacted community it needs to do so in good faith-something that wasn't done in the three card monte game run by Related on the Armory.

So, if anyone should be demonized here, it is the haughty developer who believed-and got the city to agree-that it really didn't matter that the development plan for the Armory did violence to all of the community's hard work on developing the site. Even on the supermarket exclusion-something that there was unanimity on in the Bronx delegation-the developer wouldn't budge; believing that it could bogart everyone in its ULURP path.

In the process, however, it unleashed the dogs of war-and was deservedly buried in the avalanche of outrage from an ignored and disparaged community. if we are going to issue blame tickets on this, let's issue them to those whose behavior merits the opprobrium; and not to those like Stuart Appelbaum, Jeff Eichler, Desiree Pilgrim-Hunter and Ava Farkas-folks who stood up for principle and for the rights of a community to have a meaningful say in its own destiny.