Bronx community takes on the real estate industry

NEW YORK – Who said you can’t beat City Hall? In the Kingsbridge section of the Bronx, a predominantly Hispanic working-class neighborhood, people are feeling good these days about what they accomplished when they organized against powerful business interests allied with City Hall’s current occupant, billionaire media mogul Mayor Michael Bloomberg.

Bloomberg and the Related Companies, a real estate corporation with nationwide investments, were planning to retrofit the landmark Kingsbridge Armory, no longer in use, with a mammoth shopping mall in one of New York’s most densely populated and impoverished neighborhoods.

The community needed decent jobs at living wages, not the part-time, minimum wage, no-benefit version of employment for which shopping malls, housing national chain stores, are notorious and which Related, the Bloomberg administration and its defenders insisted was better than nothing at all. In fact, nothing is better, the community reasoned, because the race-to-the-bottom model meant working more than one job just to be able to pay the rent, and because the volume of trade the developers were hoping to generate would inevitably mean more traffic, more congestion, and more pollution. If the jobs produced paid only the minimum wage, then instead of prosperity all around, the community agreed, the future would bring more poverty as well. And as everyone knows, the Bronx has more than enough of that.

But first, some of the history. The Kingsbridge Armory Redevelopment Alliance (KARA), a coalition of community residents, churches, and labor unions, led by the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU), was formed in 2005, after the Bloomberg administration launched the latest in a series of redevelopment plans for the armory. KARA struggled for the better part of this year just to get the developer to meet with it to negotiate a binding settlement involving jobs at living wages, preferential hiring for Bronx residents, non-interference in unionization, recreation space for families and other community benefits, under what has come to be known among grassroots organizers as a Community Benefits Agreement (CBA).

The demand by KARA for a living wage of $10 per hour with benefits and $11.50 per hour without benefits for all workers hired by the developer or any of its retail tenants became the centerpiece of its proposed CBA. As community residents see it, a living wage agreement means escaping poverty without having to work multiple jobs and without having to double up in order to keep a roof over their heads. For Related, the living wage was a non-starter. The developer, in lockstep with the Bloomberg administration, stubbornly refused to discuss the subject.

Related, confident that it had the backing of City Hall, arrogantly refused to talk directly with the community regarding the living wage or any other subject. So KARA lobbied its elected representatives in the City Council to vote down the proposal, hoping that the threat of a red light would bring Related to the table. Related hardly budged. In the end, with the very vocal and steadfast support of Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr., the Bronx delegation led by the Working Family Party’s Anibal Palma, and the rest of the City Council sided with the community in rejecting the armory redevelopment 45 to 1 during a highly publicized City Hall vote on Dec. 14. It sided with the community again on Dec. 21 when it voted, this time by 48 to 1, to override Bloomberg’s veto.

“We applaud all our elected officials for taking a stand against powerful developers who want to take public subsidies without giving anything in return,” was the reaction of Ava Farkas, lead organizer for KARA, to the original vote. “The council vote was a victory for community organizing, for democracy, and for the dignity of the people of the Bronx,” she added.

The vote was, to many observers, a truly game-changing development. Never before, in the eight years of the corporate-friendly and seemingly invincible Bloomberg administration, had the New York City Council dared to vote “no” to a redevelopment proposal bearing Mayor Bloomberg’s seal of approval. It was a major defeat not only for the administration, but also for the lopsided, unsustainable economic development that makes millions for corporations with access to public subsidies and tax abatements, but does nothing good for the communities it claims to serve. Helping to change the balance of power in favor of the City Council that made the reversal possible was the very narrow margin by which Bloomberg was reelected in November despite his having outspent his Democratic/Working Family Party rival, Bill Thompson, by 14 to 1.

“It is no longer an acceptable business model to allow billionaire companies to take major tax breaks to do business in our borough while they create little more than part-time, low wage jobs without benefits or much chance for advancement,” said Diaz regarding the significance of the City Council vote. “What we wanted all along was to have the armory developed in such a way that not only the developer and the tenants benefit, but also the people of the Bronx. What today’s vote confirms is that we can no longer support any project that only ensures profits for the developer while leaving the people of the Bronx in poverty.”

“This is a bittersweet victory,” said Desiree Pilgrim-Hunter, KARA leader and community resident. “We want the armory developed. Unfortunately, the Bloomberg administration chose to kill the project rather than require the developer to sign a binding Community Benefits Agreement that guaranteed living wages and other benefits for the community. Our billionaire mayor pulled the plug on the redevelopment to prevent a publically subsidized development from including living wage jobs, the right to join a union, community and recreation space and the exclusion of a big box grocery store. He believes government has no role in setting mandatory wage requirements. According to him, there should be no minimum wage law, no child labor law, and no protections for working people. He is on the wrong side of history.”

KARA’s forceful advocacy of the living wage during City Council hearings produced even more dividends. The arguments garnered such widespread and partisan support for the living wage among the progressive, predominantly Hispanic and African American City Council members that they rushed to introduce living wage legislation during the same week as the Dec. 14 vote. The bill’s sponsors, with KARA’s enthusiastic support, hope to make New York one of over 200 cities across the countries that have now adopted living wage ordinances.

KARA and the working families it represents have put New York’s real estate developers on notice: our communities reject one-sided, unsustainable economic development by corporate fiat. Redevelopment projects paid for with our tax dollars must make life better for working families, not worse, for our communities will unite in opposition to them. RWDSU president and KARA co-convener Stuart Appelbaum summed it up, “It’s time for developers to live up to their responsibilities to the community. New York needs a development strategy that puts people first, and that begins with the developers guaranteeing the rights of workers to a living wage.”

Photo: The Kingsbridge Armory. / CC BY 2.0