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Monday, July 27, 2009

Ruben Diaz Officially at Center of Kingsbridge Armory Project

The Related Companies' proposal to turn the Kingsbridge Armory into a shopping mall officially reaches the second phase of the land review process tonight at 6 p.m. with a hearing held by Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz, Jr. at Lehman College's Lovinger Theater.

Diaz, pictured to the right, has 30 days to decide whether or not to support Related's proposal.

The handling of the Armory project is Diaz's first major test as borough president, having taken over for Adolfo Carrion, following a special election in April.
In his first few months, Diaz has been out attending events, cutting ribbons, giving speeches, marching in parades and starting up a few initiatives and programs. But now comes the hard part, trying to wring concessions (in the form of community benefits) out of a big development project like the one about to be undertaken at the Armory.

Carrion's biggest critics, Diaz included, said the former B.P. didn't get enough back from huge projects like the New Yankee Stadium and Gateway Center Mall (another Related project) at the Bronx Terminal Market, which were heavily-subsidized with government funds and tax breaks.

Diaz is now taking the lead on negotiating a community benefits agreement with Related, acting as a middle man between the developer and community stakeholders, which are mostly represented by the Kingsbridge Armory Redevelopment Alliance (KARA) and Community Board 7.

A somewhat divided Board 7 recently voted to approve Related's proposal with conditions, including the signing of a benefits agreement, which Related agreed to do.

So now it's a matter of what will be included in the benefits agreement and when will it be signed. There's no doubt the agreement will include some benefits, such as a job training program.

But will it include any language requiring Related to provide living wage jobs ($10 an hour, plus benefits) once the new Armory mall is up and running? This is KARA's number one priority in a benefits agreement and also something Related has taken a hard-line stance against. At every public hearing, KARA has come out in force to demand living wage jobs. They held a 500-plus person rally (see photo below) 10 days ago to reinforce their stance and reiterate their demands. KARA's position is simple: this is a publicly-funded project in a community that needs, more than anything, good jobs with benefits.

Diaz, by all accounts, is taking this process very seriously. It's also something he wants to get done behind closed doors. Meetings to discuss the benefits agreement are closed to the public and press. He won't talk specifically about what might be included in a benefits agreement. And he recently sent out a press release saying he wanted all stakeholders to stop beating each other up over this debate.

Here's the statement:

“Due to the sensitive nature of these negotiations, this office has and will continue to decline to either discuss any specifics of the community benefits agreement regarding the Kingsbridge Armory project or to make any meetings of the negotiating committee public. We believe that this approach puts the community in the strongest possible position concerning future negotiations with the developer. This office has found the tone of the public debate over this development, on all sides, to be unfortunate and disappointing. Borough President Diaz is once again calling on project stakeholders and the community as a whole to cease their very public battles and come together to negotiate with one another in a civil manner.”

KARA has been very public about its living wage demands. So has the Bronx-based supermarket chain, Morton Williams, which is adamantly opposed to having a competing supermarket included as a tenant at the Armory. Both angrily and unsuccessfully lobbied Board 7 members to vote down the project.

They will probably do so again tonight.

Having said that, the other question is: who will Related and the city bring out to lobby for the project without such conditions. At the last hearing, Related brought out an organization called Positive Workforce to serve as a vocal counter-weight and backdrop to all the public testimony by KARA and Morton Williams.

In campaigning and during recent speeches, Diaz has voiced his support and the dire need for good jobs in the Bronx. But will he make a stand for them on the Armory project? Will he make it a condition or incentive for his approval? We'll see if he gives us any hints tonight.


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