As shoppers scurried to snatch up
last minute gifts inside the Queens Center Mall, local elected officials and
community organizations painted the shopping destination’s landlord, Macerich,
as the latest Grinch in the ongoing fight for living wages — just days after
the city council rejected a Kingsbridge Armory plan that had no living wage
Most of the 3,100 retail workers in
the sprawling urban mall earn $7.25 an hour.
Standing on a snowy corner of Queens Boulevard,
Santa symbolically held gift-wrapped boxes marked "living wages." A
menacing green Dr. Seuss character represented the mall owner. Activists from Make the Road New York, a citywide organization focusing on economic justice,
demanded that the landlord place a living wage clause in its leases — which
would require stores to pay $10/hour with benefits, or $11.50 without.
Yesteday the group released its
Dickensian report, "Queens Center Mall a Poverty Wage Center in Elmhurst," illustrating the travails of
low-income New Yorkers and arguing that the millions of dollars in tax
abatements received by Macerich should translate into benefits for its
employees, including a living wage and the right to unionize. They also
beseeched the owner to create community space.
These demands come on the heels of
the city council’s slaying of the Related Company’s plans to convert the
historic Kingsbridge Armory in The Bronx into a major shopping attraction.
Local lawmakers shot the plans down last week in the absence of a living wage
agreement, a concession that its developer said would render the project
financially unfeasible. (Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg vetoed the 47-1 vote
against the development, though the council is expected to override it.)
"This is the second front of
the battle for living wage jobs and community benefits," said Jeff
Eichler, a coordinator with the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union,
which helped staunch the Bronx development that would have created over 1,200
retail jobs and joined in the new Queens
But in contrast to the situation at
the long-dormant Kingsbridge Armory, no land use review procedure process could
be used to leverage community benefits at Queens Center.
The mall, which lures over 26 million consumers a year and is considered one of
the most profitable malls in the country, has already completed a $275 million
makeover, adding thousands of square feet of shopping space and parking to the
already busy site.
Like many major commercial property
owners in New York,
Macerich saved $48 million in taxes through the Industrial and Commercial
Abatement Program between 2004 and 2009. Make
the Road New York predicted that by 2018 those abatements will total $129
Andrew Friedman, the group’s co-executive director, said the city shouldn’t dole out
abatements without requiring a living wage as some municipalities across the
"In the absence of good public policy requiring this, the mall
owner should impose these requirements," he said.
The Make the Road New York report also contends that the property owner
receives further benefits, since it sits at a transportation crossroads, with
ten bus routes and two trains stopping near its doorstep.
Activists insisted that, with all
these publically funded perks, the workforce deserved a raise. A survey they conducted
among mall tenants found that most of the employment opportunities there were
part-time, and paid wages hovering slightly over the minimum wage at $7.72 an
Assemblyman Jose Peralta, who joined
the group outside of the mall, said that local workers earning so little had to
supplement their incomes with a second job, or with the aid of public
assistance. He discounted the argument that any job is a good job in this
"It’s not really okay because
you could have a symbolic job that pays you minimum wage, but how do you
survive in New York City?"
he asked. "How could you maintain not only yourself but your family when
you can’t pay your bills?"
Even after years on the job, most
mall employees barely climb the earnings ladder, the report said. Their
examples include Juan Cucalon, a 28-year-old, $8.25-an-hour cashier at Victoria’s Secret who
struggles to pay a $400 rent with monthly earnings of $600, and Saa’datu Sani,
whose earnings rose to $8.47 an hour at J.C. Penney after eight years.
The group and the officials plan to
continue their campaign against Macerich with street demonstrations and
letters. "Just like the story of Scrooge, where the ghost visited him on
many occasions," said Councilman-elect Daniel Dromm, "we’re going to
come back, and we’re going to visit this mall on many occasions until we get
what the community needs."
Dromm, whose predecessor, outgoing
City Councilwoman Helen Sears, was the lone supportive vote for the Kingsbridge
Armory plan, said that he would pay special attention to ensuring that
developers kept their promises.
Activists were also angry over what
they portrayed as unrealized guarantees for a community space at the mall. "They’re unwilling at this point to
open that space up to desperately needed community programs like English as a
second language or an afterschool program," Friedman said.
Their report claims that local teens
become mall rats, vacuously hanging out in the food court, while a tourism
office stands as the only community-oriented space in the mall.