Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz, Jr. and the Kingsbridge Armory Redevelopment Alliance (KARA) have been lobbying Bronx City Council members to reject the Related Companies' plan to redevelop the Kingsbridge Armory into a giant shopping mall unless the firm sits down to negotiate a binding community benefits agreement with elected officials and community stakeholders.
They seem to be having success.
Recently, Bronx Council members have had productive meetings with Related officials and Council Speaker Christine Quinn in an effort to get a community benefits agreement (CBA) signed before the Council votes on the project. Diaz, KARA and members of Community Board 7 sent a draft CBA proposal to Related earlier this fall, but the developer said the demands contained in the proposal, most notably a living wage requirement for all retail tenants at the completed Armory mall, were unreasonable.
Council Member Joel Rivera told the Norwood News on Wednesday that he and several other Bronx Council members are coalescing around the borough president who has taken a strong position on the project. The more united the Bronx Council members are the more likely Council members in other boroughs will follow their lead.
Rivera's position is also important because he is the Council's majority leader and sits on the both Council panels that will review the project - the Zoning and Franchises Subcommittee and the Land Use Committee.
Rivera also said that Council Member Larry Seabrook who is on Zoning and Franchises and Maria del Carmen Arroyo, who is on Land Use, are with him. And Councilmember Annabel Palma, who has been mentioned as a successor to outgoing Bronx delegation leader Maria Baez, told the Norwood News that she is firmly in Diaz's corner.
"The Kingsbridge Armory project presents a unique opportunity for the Bronx to set a new standard of responsible development for all five boroughs of New York City, and perhaps even beyond the city's borders," Palma said in a statement her office e-mailed to the Norwood News. "It is essential that the redevelopment plans for the Armory reflect the community's clearly expressed wish for an appropriate mix of educational, retail, entertainment, recreational and service needs."
She added: "My support of this project is contingent upon project developers agreeing to hire, to the fullest extent possible, local residents and to guarantee them 'living wage' jobs, both during the construction period and with the businesses that will occupy the as-built space."
The living wage requirement ($10 and hour, plus benefits) is a critical element that KARA and Diaz want in a CBA, but it is also the one that Related claims it can never fulfill.
Jesse Masyr, Related's lawyer and lead negotiator, said if living wage requirements are imposed, it won't ever get off the ground. Masyr says banks will not bankroll the project because Related won't be able to attract tenants.
Rivera isn't buying it. He said Related is using the position as a negotiating strategy and doesn't believe the requirement would prevent them from attracting tenants. "They're going to make beaucoup dollars on this," Rivera said. He added later, "I'm not crying and sympathizing with someone that's generated an expensive wealth from developments all over the city and around the country. At some point they're going to have to come around to living wage."
Both Rivera and Masyr said there was room for compromise.
Sources familiar with the situation say that Council Member Maria Baez is in favor of the project, which is in her district, regardless of whether a benefits agreement is in place. But Rivera, who is close to Baez, said he's trying to work behind the scenes to get her to join with the rest of the delegation. Baez, who hasn't appeared in public in weeks and is said to be in poor health, lost her bid for reelection to Fernando Cabrera, but she'll be in office through the end of the year.
Rivera also said that Council Speaker Christine Quinn told the delegation that she's neutral on the Armory project and shepherding it through the Council is not a priority for her, which is tantamount to allowing the delegation's wishes to carry the day.
Other Bronx Council members are not yet showing all their cards but may yet fall in line with the rest of the delegation.
Council Member James Vacca is supportive of the issues important to Diaz and KARA but fell short of saying that he'd oppose the plan without a CBA.
"The final Armory agreement must speak to meaningful jobs and community improvement," Vacca said in an e-mail statement. "At this point, the proposal is far from what it should be and we have just begun discussions with Council Speaker Christine Quinn designed to bring our borough's needs to the table. Community benefits and jobs are very much on my radar."
Council Member Oliver Koppell says there needs to be a CBA but that he won't commit to a particular formulation on the wage issue.A Council hearing on the project was set for Nov. 12 but, in what is probably good news for CBA advocates who would like a little more time to get as many Council members on board and possibly even negotiate an agreement, it has been pushed back to Nov. 17. Rivera said Council leaders have agreed to hold the vote on the project until the end of the mandated review period, which would push it into early December at the earliest.