By Jordan Moss
Bronx News Network Executive Editor
The fate of the Kingsbridge Armory redevelopment will likely be decided on Monday (the 14th). The City Council could kill the plan because of the lack of a living wage requirement, or members of the Bronx delegation could agree to a watered-down wage deal with the developer, The Related Companies, and the Bloomberg administration.
As it decides, the Bronx delegation should keep in mind that redeveloping the armory would never have even gotten this far without a massive investment of time and energy by local residents over the last dozen years.
I wrote my first armory article for the Norwood News as a free-lancer in 1993 (and the paper has published dozens since – here’s a link for 67 of them) when the National Guard was poised to vacate the facility and transfer ownership to the city.
At that time, District 10 Superintendent John Reehill had a vision of turning the whole darned landmark, which was at the epicenter of the overcrowding crisis, into a complex of public schools. That plan went nowhere. It was the time of Giuliani and solving the crowding crisis in the Bronx wasn't exactly tops on the new mayor's to-do list. Nothing Bronx was. One of the new mayor's first acts of office after all was to kill the new police academy long planned for the borough by the Dinkins administration.
Oliver Koppell, then an assemblyman, secured $150,000 from the state for a study but the Bronx Overall Economic Development Corporation returned the money when little was accomplished.
In 1998, the Northwest Bronx Community and Clergy Coalition, a main force behind the Kingsbridge Armory Redevelopment Alliance (KARA), began organizing residents and translating community ideas into architectural blueprints, with the assistance of Joan Byron and the Pratt Center. The plans included 2,400 school seats, a movie theatre, a green market, restaurants and a sports complex.
Meanwhile, the building continued to deteriorate, with the massive drill hall roof falling plank-by-plank onto the puddle-covered floor. Eventually, led by Councilman Jose Rivera (now an assemblyman) the City Council allocated $30 million to repair the roof.
In 2000, Giuliani unveiled his plan for RD Management and Basketball City to develop the armory into a sports and entertainment complex but that went nowhere when the developer pulled out, wasting
There were other fits and starts and the organizing continued with dozens of rallies and meetings. The Coalition raised the possibility of accessing a low-interest federal financing program Qualified Zone Academy Bonds (or QZABs) to restore the building for community use. They even got a top official of the federal drug czar’s office to visit and discuss the possibility of plowing money seized from drug dealers – known as asset forfeiture – into the Armory. (This was done at two armories in Manhattan, which are now sports and recreational facilities for young people.) But again, it was Rudy's reign.
In subsequent plans, schools, the main reason everyone began working on this in the first place, were pushed to the perimeter of the building since the School Construction Authority said there wouldn't be sufficient air and light if schools were built inside the drill hall. That would be OK if the city and state had come up with a plan to relocate the Guard units that still occupy the non-landmarked buildings on the northern part of the property. But those units are still in place and there has never been a solid commitment to build any schools, with the DOE even absurdly claiming a couple of years ago that there was no need for additional seats in District 10.
Tired of waiting for the city to issue a request for proposals (an RFP was promised by Bloomberg officials in 2003 but didn't materialize until 2006) the Norwood News launched its Armory Clock in July 2005, ticking off the days until the release of an RFP. Assemblyman Rivera, then also the Bronx Democratic chairman, waved the clock at local meetings and he did eventually get Governor Pataki to tour the building in the hopes he would relocate the National Guard from the rear non-landmarked buildings (he didn't). And Deputy Mayor Dan Doctoroff came up for a tour later that year, vowing, “We’re ready to roll.” The RFP was finally issued the following year. That step was celebrated by the newly formed KARA on the drill floor with balloons and lots of speeches by community residents, clergy and union members.
None of the above would have happened without a strong local organizing campaign. And I don't think I'm being immodest when I say that the Norwood News contributed significantly by amplifying local efforts and getting the armory on everyone's radar screen before the grassroots push even began.
Unfortunately, little is recognizable in Related's plan from those original blueprints the Coalition hammered out with Pratt and later iterations from KARA. Related is not calling the project Shops at the Armory for nothing. It’s a shopping mall pure and simple.
So, that’s why the living wage demanded by KARA is so important. If the project, say, included three schools and funding for a community center, maybe budging on the living wage would make sense. But it doesn’t include those things or anything else the community badly needs.
What's left is better wages – and calling it a “living wage” is pushing it since $10 an hour is $18,200 before taxes -- for local residents and a less insane development policy that doesn't pad developer's wallets with tens of millions of dollars in taxpayer subsidies without requiring a anything in return.
Perhaps having learned from Related's too-sweet deal at the Gateway Center or feeling a little guilty about falling for the city's promise to replace the parkland occupied by the new Yankee Stadium anytime soon, Bronx politicians have been taking an unprecedented tough stand on the Armory and getting out in front of the Coalition – which packed over 1,000 people into a school gym for an October meeting that mainly focused on the Armory. A new borough president, Ruben Diaz, Jr., has provided spirited leadership in stark contrast to his predecessor, Adolfo Carrion, who was essentially Bloomberg's deputy mayor for Bronx development. The borough' Council members have coalesced around Diaz (though we'll see how tightly on Monday).
Diaz's bold move signals his development philosophy very early in his tenure. At the Coalition's massive October meeting, Diaz called the fight for fairness at the Armory “our new civil rights movement.”
"I want to do business in the Bronx,” Diaz said, [but] “it is not radical to simply say, a) we should protect surrounding businesses and b) we should have jobs and living wages," He added, "You want to do business, we can do business. But business has to be good for everybody.
At the Zoning and Franchises Subcommittee hearing, he testified: “I do want to see new jobs created in my borough. 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.”
Diaz has done his part as quarterback. Now Joel Rivera, who has emerged to the surprise of many as articulate spokesman for this issue in the City Council, has the ball.
“In my book, this is an economic exploitation project,” Rivera said in November. “We need to change the conversation with the administration.”
It's a pivotal moment for Rivera, who became an instant politician while he was still a 23-year-old Fordham student when his father, Jose Rivera, backed Gifford Miller for Council speaker and got his son installed as majority leader in return. This is, without a doubt, his most critical political role to date.
There have been reports that Rivera and the Bronx delegation may agree to a deal which would have people who work all day at the Armory line up for handout in the same building (some kind of subsidy that would absolve retailers of actually paying a living wage themselves).
If they do, they'll be ignoring their own eloquent arguments over the last two months.
With their decision on the Armory, Bronx elected officials can lead and even set the development agenda for the city going forward. Yes, that may mean the Armory lies vacant for the remainder of the Bloomberg administration. But we will survive without another cookie-cutter mall – we are not a suburb – and pushing the reset button will allow for a project that is both lucrative for a developer and an investment in our community, it workers, and its young people.
This is the Bronx's chance to change the bizarre development equation that hands over public property to enrich developers but does nothing to lift Bronx families out of poverty. (Click here for a good explanation why Related's argument that a $10 an hour will sink the project is hogwash.)
We've arrived at this point because of the hard work Bronxites have put into reclaiming this local landmark. Without it, there would be no new roof on the drill hall, there would still be no RFP, and there certainly wouldn't be talk of new city legislation requiring the living wage in similar developments in the future.
But now it's in the hands of Bronx elected officials who have shown some rare moxie in the fight thus far. They are finally in the driver's seat after being taken for a ride at Gateway, Yankee Stadium and the filtration plant.
They can proudly cross the finish line or meekly hand the keys back to Mayor Bloomberg.
We'll know very soon what they're made of.
Monday, December 14, 2009
By Jordan Moss