En Español Know Your Rights
Source: Gotham Gazette
Subject: Housing & Environmental Justice
Type: Media Coverage

In Kingsbridge: Will Derailing a Bad Project Lead to a Good One?


If you only caught the last
act of the show, it would be easy to attribute the City Council’s unprecedented
45-1 rejection of the Related Companies’ "Shops at the Armory" to a
unique alignment of the political planets. A third-term mayor, seemingly
vulnerable after an unexpectedly close re-election; a City Council — and its
speaker — eager to flex their muscles; and a Bronx
borough president whose leadership star is on the rise.

 


But it took years of dogged
community organizing and shrewd coalition-building around a clear vision for
the city’s largest armory to position the Kingsbridge Armory Redevelopment
Alliance, or KARA, to take advantage of timing, luck and maybe begin re-writing
the rules on how major development projects get done.

  

Having accomplished the
unthinkable and by defeating a project backed by the administration, KARA and
its allies are gearing up to re-imagine a future for the armory that puts
community needs first, doesn’t strangle the neighborhood in traffic and
delivers jobs capable of lifting Bronx residents out of poverty.

  

‘We Drove the Process’

  

In the usual New York scenario,
developers tee up their projects, and work quietly with city agencies to line
up financing and approvals, as they court political supporters. The New York City Charter-mandated Uniform
Land
Use Review Process,
known as ULURP, requires that major development projects, zoning changes and
transfers of city-owned property be reviewed by the affected community boards,
the borough president, the City Planning Commission and the City Council. It
sets deadlines for each step that create a six-month window for public review.
Only the City Council vote and subsequent action by the mayor are binding.
 


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.

 


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.

 


Their 1995 plan was anchored
by schools — members put the Bronx’s most
overcrowded school district together with the city’s largest vacant building
and reached the obvious conclusion.

 


Kwasi Akyeampong, also a
community resident and KARA member, recalls, "We had a vision of how the
armory should be developed to benefit the community. We were steadfast; we held
our elected officials accountable."

 


The coalition kept the armory
high on its agenda, and held rallies, marches and press conferences to ensure
that elected officials kept it on theirs as well. The activists pushed for the
transfer of the armory’s ownership from the state to the city (1996) and forced
the city to spend $30 million to restore the building’s 260,000 square foot
roof and stabilize its landmarked exterior (2000). They dragged a succession of
school chancellors through the building and through the coalition’s own
research on non-city sources of school funding. Finally, they waited out the
slow death of a sole-source agreement between the Giuliani administration and Basketball City (1999-2002) that would have turned
the armory into a commercial sports complex.

 


In 2003, the Northwest Bronx
Coalition presented the more market-savvy Team Bloomberg with a mixed-use
proposal of its own that would have divided the massive space between schools,
recreational space and retail. The coalition navigated the Bronx’s challenging
political terrain to bring the Department of Education, City Council and
Assembly members, then-Borough President Adolfo Carrión and the city’s Economic
Development Corp. together on an agreement to put out a request for proposals
from developers. In 2005, the Economic Development Corp. announced the
formation of a task force, which it pledged to "consult" as it
drafted the request for proposals. Community members were heartened, but wary.

 


Meanwhile, not far away, the
same city and state officials were on a very different track as they moved
Yankee Stadium through the environmental impact statement and land use
processes at warp speed, rolling over near-unanimous community opposition. And
a few blocks farther south, the Related Companies were negotiating with
Economic Development Corp. to build a shopping mall on the old Bronx Terminal
Market site. On the day of that council vote Related’s attorneys e-mailed a
"Community Benefits Agreement" to community representatives. It
provides few real benefit and so far the record on actual delivery of the
promised benefits has been sketchy.

 


Labor Gets on Board

 

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.

 


KARA’s platform demanded that
the armory’s redevelopment prioritize uses that would serve the community,
including schools. It also called for union construction jobs with local hiring
and apprenticeships, and insisted that permanent retail jobs in the completed
project pay a living wage – defined by KARA as $10 per hour plus benefits.

 

KARA hoped that employees of
the armory’s tenants would end up carrying union cards.Like other industries, retail has seen the
unionized share of its workforce shrink dramatically since the mid-20th
century. Most retailers today pay poverty wages; they often employ immigrants
who are most vulnerable to exploitation.

 


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.

 


KARA forged an alliance that
could level the playing field with Related — even when it became clear that
city government, which should have been wearing referee’s stripes, was
unapologetically playing for the developer’s team. As City Environmental
Quality Review and ULURP mandated reviews rolled on, KARA examined reams of documents,
bringing in experts in planning, finance, and traffic. "We did our
research and kept the politicians up to speed," said Ava Farkas, lead
organizer for the armory campaign since 2005.

 


KARA invited elected
officials to reaffirm their support for the alliance and its principles.

 

More than 1,000 community
members turned out at an October 2009 meeting to hear Borough President Rubén
Díaz Jr. call the fight for living wages in the armory a battle in "our
new civil rights movement." Six weeks earlier, Díaz had gone off the
standard ULURP script and sent a negative recommendation to the City Planning
Commission, citing the armory project’s devastating traffic impacts and effects
on existing local retailers. He also criticized Related’s refusal to commit to
a living wage requirement or negotiate a binding community benefits agreement
with KARA.

 


City Planning approved the
project, despite its seeming deviation from PlaNYC’s sustainability principles
(for example, generating 14,600 new car trips per day). Planning sent the
project on to the City Council for committee hearings in November and to its
historic rejection by the full council on December 9.

 

The Next Steps

 


Even as KARA and its allies
celebrated (and as the Real Estate Board of New York threatened retribution),
members voiced their frustration at having been able to block a bad project,
but unable to transform it into a good one. They didn’t lack of a vision of
their own — though in hindsight, Farkas and others wondered whether the
community caved too quickly on letting retail dominate the armory mix. But the
City Charter provides only the flimsiest tools — 197a plans — for proactive
community planning.

 


Instead, the land use process
puts developers and mayoral agencies in the driver’s seat, and leaves
communities, community boards and the City Council strapped firmly into the
back seat. Will any effort at charter revision open an opportunity to change
this dynamic?

KARA clearly succeeded in
putting living wages on the table – for city-subsidized projects, at least. Bronx members Annabel Palma and Oliver Koppel have
introduced a living wage bill into the City Council. It’s unclear whether state
legislation also would also be needed. But the momentum is there, maybe even
enough to move a bill through Albany.
Retail and other low-wage sectors are growing much faster than better paying
sectors; if New York is going to accept — and even subsidize that — isn’t it
in the public interest to make sure that families can survive on what those
jobs pay?

 


A recent analysis by the
Center for an Urban Future validates KARA’s assertion that the Bronx already
has more than its share of low-wage jobs; 42 percent of Bronx
workers over age 18 earn less than $11.54 an hour. A mandate applying to all
city-funded projects would eliminate the coercive choice between bad jobs and
no jobs that developers keep offering to communities like the northwest Bronx.

 


The alliance between
community and labor on the living wage issue provided a novel twist in the
armory story — even though the service employees and the building trades both
peeled off to endorse the mall just before the council vote. Will those unions
eventually broaden their definition of self-interest in the way that the
retails workers seem to be doing?

 


Bronx communities have repeatedly been rolled by
mega-development projects – the Croton Filtration Plant, Yankee Stadium and the
Gateway Mall — that have promised training and apprenticeships, then largely
failed to deliver. A community that can mobilize effectively enough to get a
"no" vote on such projects from its elected officials could be a
formidable adversary — or a powerful ally — to a labor movement that may find
itself in need of friends as the new green economy takes shape.

 


And what about Kingsbridge
Armory? KARA is ready to go back to the drawing board, with an even clearer
understanding of what the Bronx stands to
lose, and to gain. Realizing the damage that a mega-mall would inevitably
inflict, KARA and its allies are seeking a community-led vision that will
maximize local benefits without destroying the neighborhood.

 


They won’t have to look far
for a precedent. Another armory opened its doors to its host community this
month, gracefully accommodating a women’s shelter, community space and a YMCA
whose gym will also serve local kids during the school day. The redevelopment
of Brooklyn’s Park Slope Armory took years to
move from vision to reality, but KARA members are already asking "why not
here?"