Friday, January 22, 2010

Airbrushing Kingsbridge

We have spent a good deal of time counteracting the misstatements being propagated by those folks-mostly in the real estate community, and their media lackeys-who were both frightened and appalled by the defeat of the Kingsbridge Armory development. So it is disheartening to have to set the record straight for someone who was a big supporter of the KARA coalition. But Joan Bryan's piece in the Gotham Gazette requires a clarifying response.

Bryan does a good job at recapitulating the long years of hard work put into the redevelopment of the Armory by members of the Northwest Bronx Community and Clergy Coalition-the foundation of KARA: "In the case of Kingsbridge, though, Pilgrim-Hunter recounts a 13-year campaign, spanning two administrations, that began when the community and clergy coalition demanded that the armory be redeveloped, and reached a clear and early consensus that redevelopment had to meet community needs. "If we had a singular advantage, it was that we initiated the process, and we drove the process through to the end,” said Desiree Pilgrim-Hunter, a leader of KARA and the Northwest Bronx Community and Clergy Coalition."

And the proper kudos are given to KARA's union supporters: "Community Benefits Agreements in Los Angeles and elsewhere have been successful. In New York, though, developers routinely use such agreements as cover for bad projects. In 2005, mindful of both scenarios -- and knowing that securing a seat at the table provided no assurance that the community would be served anything but crumbs -- 19 organizations founded KARA. They included the Northwest Bronx Community and Clergy Coalition, local housing and community organizations, and, in a departure from the standard community-vs.-developer playbook, labor with Service Employees International Union Local 32BJ, which represents porters, doormen and other property service workers; the NYC Building Trades; and the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union."

And Bryan gives proper due to the RWDSU's other work at the community level: "For its part, the retail workers union had worked with community organizations before, joining with Make the Road by Walking in Bushwick and working with GOLES (Good Old Lower Eastside) to create the Retail Action Project in SoHo in support of workers fighting against wage theft and other abuses. Before the decline of organized labor in the U.S., unions were a part of the social fabric. If unions are to grow -- or even survive -- in the new economy, they need to rebuild their links to communities, according to Jeff Eichler, the retail workers' representative to KARA. Forming alliances and supporting low-wage, non-unionized workers in communities like the Northwest Bronx are very much in the unions’ self-interest, Eichler said."

In addition, Bryan also keenly understands some of the shortcomings of the ULURP process: "Communities are typically caught flat-footed when the ULURP clock starts ticking: It’s hard to assess the situation, coalesce around a response and put a strategy in play before the 185-day timer runs down. Instead, changes needed for the project to gain final approval from the City Council are often embodied in 11-th hour side agreements, negotiated behind closed doors."

What's missing from this, at least as far as it goes, prescient understanding of the Armory battle? The role of MortonWilliams, the Alliance and the coalition of Hispanic supermarket owners who were. arguably, the catalysts for the ultimate defeat of the project. This mixture of small business elements gets totally airbrushed in Bryan's otherwise incisive understanding of what happened in the Bronx.

But this lacuna in her analysis is not only insulting, it also serves to mystify and romanticize what actually happened-ignoring how the Alliance and its allies were in many ways the linchpin of the politics of the development's defeat, beginning with the fact that MortonWilliams paid for all of the traffic studies that provided the rationale for the city council's negative vote.

But the supermarket exclusion issue isn't even in Bryan's picture. Yet, it was this issue that was the initial impetus for uniting the entire Bronx delegation-the first step towards its coalescing on the wage issue. So, it goes without saying, that KARA and its allies were a necessary ingredient for the project's demise, but KARA wasn't alone; and to ignore the small business component of the opposition is to miss a vital aspect of this successful campaign.

The Alliance has been in the forefront of many such campaigns, and in each and every one of them there has been both a community as well as a small business component in the successful coalition-and on numerous occasions, labor has played a key role also. On the other hand, there have been a plethora of community only coalitions that have floundered because they didn't have either the critical mass necessary, or the political acumen to successfully navigate the policy making process.

The absence of this key factor in Bryan's analysis takes away from what would have been a thoroughly insightful overview of the campaign's success. The Alliance and MortonWillams deserved better for the role that they played.