It’s probably safe to assume that the faculty dining room at the Bronx’s Lehman College will be packed the evening of June 24 with a lot of people wanting a lot of things from the Related Companies.
The prolific developer is coming before Community Board 7 to discuss its planned development of the behemoth Kingsbridge Armory, a whale of a 92-year-old, 588,000-square-foot building just beyond Manhattan. The city has been trying to develop the building for years, and now Related, led by Stephen Ross, is preparing to convert it into a $323 million shopping center, complete with cinemas, a fitness center and to-be-determined retailers.
As one of the few developers seeking approvals on large-scale development these days, Related has fast found itself entangled in a fight at the armory, facing engaged community groups and large unions that all favor the site’s development, but that each want their own set of benefits. The central issue that’s emerged: Union and community groups are demanding retailers that pay a “livable wage.” Related is balking, saying that such a requirement would force it to scrap the project, leaving the site vacant.
Given the involvement of the unions—particularly the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union—and the fact that the City Council must ultimately vote on the project this year, the battle is at its heart a political one.
The Bronx’s City Council delegation is already being tugged between the developer, which claims it can barely build as it is, and the RWDSU, other unions and the Northwest Bronx Community and Clergy Coalition, which say wage and hiring issues are paramount. Nearby supermarket chain Morton Williams is also pressuring local electeds to have Related rule out a grocery store within the armory.
Certainly for now, at least some of those groups pushing for benefits say the deal isn’t worth the effort unless it has a living-wage requirement—defined as giving workers about $10 an hour or more, and benefits. The groups like to frame the issue as one where the city is using subsidy—Related has been seeking more than $13 million in tax breaks, among other incentives—to finance “jobs that keep people in poverty,” in the words of Stuart Appelbaum, president of the RWDSU.
“Economic development that creates poverty wage jobs accomplishes nothing,” the politically well-connected union leader said, not shying away from class struggle rhetoric. “The community has spoken very loudly, and the question is whether or not New York’s elected officials are going to be responsive to the citizens of New York, or if they’re going to be responsive to wealthy developers.”
Related, for its part, isn’t flinching on the living-wage issue, saying that if it required its retailers to pay more in wages than nearby stores, they would be unable to land any tenants.
“Despite what anyone thinks, this is not a bluff—we’ll pull out,” said Jesse Masyr, Related’s lawyer on the project.
“It’s not a question of being reasonable,” he said. “It kills the project.”
The land-use battle comes at something of an unpredictable time in New York City politics. The project is slated to come up for a vote before the Council in November or December, after the Democratic primary election in September but before the current crop of elected officials leave their current posts. Thus many on the Council will be lame ducks at the time of the vote, potentially including the local Councilwoman, Maria Baez, as the Bronx Democratic Party recently endorsed her challenger, as did the Working Families Party.
Regardless, Ms. Baez and other members of the Bronx delegation—Councilmen Joel Rivera and Oliver Koppell, for instance—are at the center of both sides’ efforts.
Already, almost all of the elected officials involved in the project have endorsed the general efforts of the Kingsbridge Armory Redevelopment Alliance, a union of groups, including RWDSU and the clergy coalition, that wants living-wage guarantees, among other things. Ms. Baez’s spokesman said she supports a living-wage requirement at the armory.
And, to the Bronx elected officials, the clergy coalition and Mr. Appelbaum are significant—they help rally voters, and the council members often align with them.
“[Mr. Appelbaum] has influence with me,” said Mr. Koppel, who represents the neighboring Council district and who is pushing for a school by the armory. “I would much prefer not to vote against whatever they are seeking.”
Related, one of the more effective developers of public administered projects in this city, is no stranger to Bronx politics, as the firm has attempted to gain approval for two separate retail developments in the past five years. It has much experience in throwing the community concessions to win approvals, and its executives donated prolifically to elected officials in the borough—since 2006, Related employees have given more than $42,000 to city elected officials, according to campaign filings—before rules were changed limiting such contributions.
Leading the public approval and strategic efforts is Mr. Masyr, the wry, politically apt land use lawyer who has waged many of Related’s battles in recent years, most of them successful, most notably the approval in 2006 of the conversion of the Bronx Terminal Market by Yankee Stadium.
But it’s worth noting that before Related’s victory at the Bronx Terminal Market, the firm suffered a rare loss on a land-use project in the borough a year earlier, under circumstances similar to those today. Related wanted to put a 130,000-square-foot BJ’s along Brush Avenue, only to see it voted down in a key City Council subcommittee.
The main reasons for the defeat: a fear of big-box retailers, low wages and concerns that nearby supermarkets would be put out of business.
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