The Bronx Is Kvetching

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 Bronx Is Kvetching