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Wednesday, November 18, 2009

City Council Grills Armory Developer on Living Wage

KARA supporters gather outside of City Hall to protest the redevelopment of the Kingsbridge Armory without a living wage.

Requiring developers of city property to guarantee a living wage for retail employees may have seemed far-fetched to some observers six months ago.

Not anymore.

At the City Council’s hearing on the Related Companies’ proposal to turn the Kingsbridge Armory into a giant shopping mall, virtually the entire Zoning and Franchising Subcommittee, (which will be the only Council committee to hold a hearing on the project) grilled company representatives on the living wage issue.

Council Member Larry Seabrook, who sits on the committee and represents the northeast Bronx, said that overall unemployment figures don’t reflect the vast numbers of jobless in the borough’s African American and Latino communities – a figure he cited as 55 percent. He said he believed the project would not be harmed by a living wage requirement. “I don’t think providing living wages will destroy the project,” he said.

Another member of the committee, Eric Gioia of Queens, said the only way that workers will survive on a minimum wage is if “the government subsidizes workers through food stamps.” He added that without a community benefits agreement (CBA), Related will “keep the neighborhood poor.”

Meanwhile, the Bloomberg administration, which presented a united front with Related, held to their position that the proposed deal with Related (which includes millions in tax breaks and bargain-basement price tag of $5 million for the facility) is the best that can be achieved.

“We have the best project we can possibly get,” said Deputy Mayor Robert Lieber. “We want to make sure we don’t miss this opportunity to begin construction.”

And Related spokesman Jesse Masyr told the committee that requiring living wage jobs ($10 an hour with benefits) was not realistic. The retailers “can go anywhere else in the Bronx,” he said, adding later, “We wouldn’t be doing any justice promising something we can’t guarantee.

Other members pressing Related on the living wage were Robert Jackson, Albert Vann, Helen Sears and Joel Rivera, who has taken a leadership role among the Council delegation in opposing the project without a negotiated CBA.

“In my book, this is an economic exploitation project,” Rivera said. Later he said, “We need to change the conversation with the administration.”

Even Council Member Oliver Koppell, who has been the least enthusiastic about a living wage requirement among the Bronx Council delegation, put the heat on Related. Citing a New York Times story from this week about other cities that have had living wage agreements, Koppell, who doesn’t sit on Zoning and Franchises, told the company, “I would like to see a presentation that shows me why [living wages] cannot be financed.” He also suggested that the Council might want to pass a living wage law.

The hearing room was packed with members of the Kingsbridge Armory Redevelopment Alliance (KARA), which includes union members as well as local residents and activists. Members of construction unions, however, spoke in favor of supporting Related’s plans even without a CBA.

Because the committee felt it needed more time to question city officials, they have scheduled a public meeting on Nov. 23, but the public will not be able to testify.

The nine members of Zoning and Franchises, which is chaired by KARA supporter Tony Avella of Queens, as well as the full Land Use Committee, must vote on the project by Dec. 9.

Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz, who has taken a firm stance on the living wage requirement, summed up his argument, which seems to be gaining traction just as Mayor Bloomberg, whose mayoralty has been defined by its partnership with developers, suits up for a third term.

“I do want to see new jobs created in my borough,” Diaz testified. “But these jobs must be created in the right way. The old model, that any job is better than no job, is no longer acceptable.”

This piece was written by Jordan Moss and reported by Molly Ryan and Jordan Moss.


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