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Thursday, June 25, 2009

Marathon Armory Hearing Full of Twists

I have been to several New York City public hearings and the one last night about the proposal to redevelop the Kingsbridge Armory, one of the world's largest armories, was undoubtedly the most interesting, and the longest.

Clocking in at just over four hours, the Armory hearing in the Lehman College faculty dining room, which was required of Community Board 7 which must vote on whether or not to support the project according to city's land use review process, featured everything from folk peace songs to near violence.

I'm not going to get into everything in this post, but I did want to run through a few of the highlights quickly.

The evening started out with a bang as about a hundred or so construction union guys, mostly from Positive Workforce, a big supporter of the Armory's designated developer, the Related Companies, literally bum rushed past cops and security guards into the dining room and installed themselves as a backdrop to all the night's speakers.

Several attendees were startled by their aggressiveness, others felt intimidated. Their message throughout the night was clear: build at the Armory now.

The hearing began at 6:30 p.m. By 7 p.m., police weren't letting anyone else in, citing fire code concerns. We managed to smuggle ourselves in through a sewer pipe. Not really, but you get the picture, space was tight. (A special thanks to Fernando Tirado, Community Board 7 district manager, for getting the press inside to witness the festivities.)

The hearing began with a round of "special" speakers (I think because they were disabled, they were allowed to speak first) from Co-op City who praised the project because of its apparent similarities to the Bay Plaza mall, which they think added to their part of the Bronx. It seemed kind of random.

Next up was Community Board 7's presentation of its idea, which Related has adopted into its design plans, for a World Peace Atrium inside the Armory. To kick off this presentation, CB7 land use chairman Ozzie Brown brought in his old friend Peter Yarrow (of Peter, Paul and Mary fame) to sing a song and say some words.

This is where things got a little awkward. Yarrow began by singing, "If I Had a Hammer," which was met with a tepid response from the audience. A second attempt was more successful, with about half the crowd joining in and clapping and singing along. As soon as the song concluded, representatives from the Kingsbridge Armory Redevelopment Alliance (KARA) -- which came out in full force and dominated the speaking portion of the hearing -- began a forceful and deafening chant: "What do we want?" "GOOD JOBS!" When do we want 'em?" "NOW!"

Peter Yarrow sings a peace song at the Armory hearing

After things calmed down, Yarrow spoke about the civil rights movement and how the country had become increasingly angry and polarized over the years, but was coming around now with the election of Barack Obama. He was frequently interrupted by people yelling out things like: "How much are they paying you?" and "Gentrification isn't civil."

Later, Yarrow said he was surprised by the level of disrespect and animosity at the hearing, adding that he was not there to support the project, per se, but to facilitate constructive dialogue. He said he empathized with the anger being expressed, but seemed saddened and disturbed by the whole scene.

In any case, Ozzie Brown went on to present his World Peace Atrium idea, which, as I mentioned earlier, Related has adopted into its design plan. It's still a little unclear exactly what this will entail, but from what I understand it will be kind of an educational tribute/museum to peace workers like Martin Luther King, Jr., Ghandi and Mother Teresa, complete with statues and informational kiosks.

After this, Ethan Goodman, a lawyer for the Related Companies gave a 15-minute presentation on their plans for the Armory, saying they wanted to open up the former closed-off military installation to the community. We'll get into this more later, but at the end, Goodman talked about the community space, which he said would amount to 27,000-square-feet. Besides the Peace Atrium, Related's plan looked pretty much the same as it did when they first won the bid last year. They've also included 60,000-square-feet of space for a large retail store or supermarket, which representatives from Morton Williams, which owns the Associated supermarket across the street from the Amory, said would destroy their two Bronx supermarkets and force them to close shop in the borough for good (more this later too).

Related's presentation was followed by essentially three kinds of public testimony: KARA representatives (lots of them, they dominated the hearing, no question) who told Board members to vote no on the project unless Related signed a Community Benefits Agreement, which would include union protections, living wage job requirements (which Related says is a non-starter) and free or affordable recreation space; representatives from Morton Williams who were adamantly opposed to the supermarket idea for obvious reasons; and construction workers from Positive Workforce who supported the project wholeheartedly.

More coverage and photos and thoughts about this tomorrow.

The Community Board will vote on the project on July 14 at 6:30 p.m. at the Bronx Library Center.


  1. Doug Cunningham, Pastor New Day ChurchJune 26, 2009 at 12:23:00 PM EDT

    All the "special speakers" who got to speak in the first hour of the program supported the plans of the developer. I didn't get the impression that all, or even most of them were disabled.

    My understanding was that the purpose of the evening was to hear from the general public - and that portion of the event did not start until after 8:00

  2. We asked the "Positive Workforce" what union they belonged to. They told us that they did not belong to a union but they belonged to a "community" group called positive workforce. They were not union.

  3. Community Board 7 did not allow me to complete my testimony although we are a mnajor stakeholder. It did provide 3 outsiders from coop city an opportunity to speak ahead of community people, and with no limitation on timing.

    Here is my testimony:

    Avi Kaner. Morton Williams Supermarkets
    Tel: 1-718-933-5910

    My name is Avi Kaner. I am an owner of Morton Williams Supermarkets. Thank you for taking the time to listen to my testimony against this development plan.

    We are a fourth generation family business that has been headquarted across from the armory for 57 years. We have a supermarket directly across the street and another one two blocks away, as well as our accounting office and hiring office for our 12 supermarkets. (photos)

    My testimony will focus on the Related Companies’ plan to build a Big Box Supermarket or Warehouse Club in the armory that would put us out of business and result in the loss of many hundreds of union jobs.

    I believe there are three reasons to vote No to Related’s plan:

    1) Related’s Big Box Supermarket or Warehouse Club plan clearly violates the City’s RFP

    Related’s Big Box food plans violate the terms of the city’s RFP which states “proposed commercial and retail uses must expand and enhance the current mix of retail offerings in the area, and endeavor to not duplicate or directly compete with the existing retail uses.” Suddenly, after Related was awarded the contract, it announced its intention to disregard this RFP requirement and instead plans a giant 60,000 square foot Big Box Supermarket or Warehouse Club in the armory that would have a catastrophic impact on our business and our company-wide hiring office across the street.

    2) Related’s Big Box Supermarket or Warehouse Club plan will result in the loss of loyal community businesses and hundreds of union jobs

    Related’s plan would represent a lethal blow to our two Bronx stores which would positively close as a result. It will also be a punishing setback against the neighborhood with the elimination of many hundreds of Morton Williams union jobs - as our hiring and corporate office will be forced to move to a location outside of the Bronx where we have other stores.

    3) New York’s tax credits and incentives for a Big Box Supermarket or Warehouse Club plan is unfair and unethical

    To destroy our business with government subsidies is an outrage. The fact that taxes paid by businesses like ours will be used to subsidize a giant Big Box Supermarket or Warehouse Club magnifies the unfairness. We are a good union employer that has been headquartered in the Kingsbridge community for over half a century, employing over 450 Kingsbridge area residents at any given time with full-time union jobs, health care, and other benefits. Many of our other 300 employees started out in this Bronx neighborhood. We are a leading private employer in the community with average wages that may be the highest for a private company in the area. Our payroll is $400,000 a week with 100% of our employees working full time. We continuously update our stores with the most modern equipment and merchandising. We carry fresh and healthy foods, including a large selection of fresh produce. (photos)

    We have never taken a penny in City subsidies. Now the City wants to use our tax dollars to put us out of business. This is unfair and unethical.
    The Related Companies have spent millions of dollars on lobbyists; lawyers, and consultants to advance its plans. Just look at this Environmental Impact Statement. 10 pounds of paper and analysis that says that a Big Box Supermarket or Warehouse Club would not affect local businesses – a picture speaks a thousand words (photo) – as you can see this is a ridiculous argument, even if it cost millions of dollars to produce.

    Ladies and Gentlemen on Community Board 7 – please vote an unequivocal NO to Related’s plan to put us out of business and to destroy hundreds of union jobs. We have been your loyal neighbor for 57 years. Why destroy us with your vote?

  4. Let's be clear here, the so-called Positive Workforce Coalition that attended the hearing were construction guys that were both union and non-union. They are not based in the Bronx and they are not the voice of New York City’s Building Trades. They were construction workers from outside the community who were clearly working on behalf of the developer. There were plenty of New York’s Trade Union Members attending the hearing however they were sitting down and trying to listen to the proceedings. They were not carrying signs or shouting.

    I am the Vice President of the Bronx Board of Business Agents, the Bronx branch of the Building and Construction Trades Council of Greater New York and vicinity. We are members of KARA and as I testified last week we have asked Community Board 7 to vote yes only after Related sits down to negotiate a Community Benefits Agreement, a Labor Peace Agreement, and a Project Labor Agreement with all of the community stakeholders. We have been members of KARA for over 3 ½ years and from the very start we have pledged our unity and commitment to make sure the community’s needs are met. As much as we need the jobs that the Armory project will provide, we need to keep our word and stand by our partners to make sure that this is a responsible, equitable development.

    The Positive Workforce Coalition disrupted the proceedings and took away seats that should have rightfully been made available to community members. It seems likely that they were recruited by the Related Companies in order to intimidate the community. We must find out who brought them to the hearing and if they were paid to disrupt it.
    It seemed that the attendance of the Positive Workforce coalition was used to confuse and divide people. They succeeded at the public hearing on some level; otherwise this Bronx News Network reporter would not have written they are "construction union guys." But we cannot let them divide us. Rather, we call on them to join the community, clergy and labor coalition to make sure that the community's needs are met in any future development of the Kingsbridge Armory.

    Fred LeMoine

  5. Fred Lemoine,

    I don't know where you get your info from but,
    You have been miss informed, Positive Workforce
    is not a union, they are a coalition of people
    who live in the community such as myself and I've
    been living here for more than 30 years as well
    as any members of positive workforce, we are of the community, so talk what you know, not what you presume and since we are the comminty we have a right to be here and voice our opinion.

    Mrs. Ursula P. Morgan
    Former Construction worker
    Non active member of Positive Workforce and
    Candidate for District Leader for the 80 Assembly
    District in 2006


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