Bloomberg III Opens With Armory Battle

"We have four more years," Deputy Mayor Robert Lieber told a City Council hearing on Tuesday. "I don't know what we'd do in the next four years that we haven't done already."

Lieber was addressing the Zoning & Franchises subcommittee, which is considering a Bloomberg administration plan to sell the historic Kingsbridge Armory to the developer Related Companies for the construction of a mall.

At Tuesday's hearing, powerful unions and connected pols counseled the Council to vote "no" on the plan unless Related agrees to require that the stores that occupy the mall pay living wages to their employees. Related is refusing to do that, saying it won't be able to lease the mall if it does. And Lieber was suggesting that the city tried as hard as it could to get this deal to pay living wages.

The city's efforts, however, were far from Herculean. The city gave Bronx community groups a seat at the table when it drafted the "request for proposals" for developers for the Armory. And the resulting document did say that the city's Economic Development Corporation would "look favorably" on proposals that included a living wage. But none of the developers who submitted bids offered such a wage, defined as $10 an hour with benefits or $11.50 an hour without. So the city selected Related, and is planning to sell the company a building that cost $30 million to repair for $5 million and throw in $17 million in other subsidies. The paper-thin commitment to a living wage articulated in the RFP was left for community groups, unions and Bronx elected officials to pick up.

At Tuesday's hearing, Lieber said the city is "not in favor of mandating a specific wage requirement within the retail leases. " Adding: "These barriers would inhibited the development of this and other projects, and thus the 1,200 permanent jobs and 1,000 construction jobs would go uncreated and the Armory would lie fallow."

Lieber's reference to "other projects" was telling. As City Limits reports this week, the fight over living wages at the Armory has become a linchpin for the living wage movement and an important test of the political landscape just two weeks after Bloomberg—whose developer-friendly policies have made him plenty of enemies—won re-election by a surprisingly thin margin.

But while Lieber is worried about the living wage debate affecting other projects beyond the armory—in other words, becoming a standard that all developers would have to contend with in the future— some of his allies at the hearing suggested that the Armory debate demonstrated the need for just such a standard.

Paul Fernandes, an officer of the Building and Construction Trades Council, said that, "A vote against this project will not create any jobs, but will kill the project and 1,000 union construction jobs." The split between the building trades and other unions over the Armory reflects the way current wage policies divide workers: Construction jobs on large public projects are frequently good-paying union gigs, making those unions backers of the projects, while the people who work in the completed buildings are often poorly paid. That divide, Fernandes said, "results from the lack of any standard policy on development projects." Chatting before the hearing, several Councilmembers discussed whether a citywide wage standard for publicly assisted projects—which dozens of cities have in place—isn't something they should start discussing.

Such a conversation would attack a fundamental idea at the heart of most urban development policies to date: that since any job is better than no job, cities must give millions in subsidies to companies offering any jobs. Lieber articulated this approach on Tuesday, saying, "We want to see these jobs get created here at the start, because the alternative of no job is worse."

Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz, Jr. rejected that idea. "These jobs must be created in the right way," he testified. "The old model, that any job is better than no job, is not acceptable." The idea is that with a property like the Armory, and a retail market like the Bronx, communities have more bargaining strength than the traditional approach to development suggests.

There was no vote on the issue Tuesday. But most of the questions were hostile to Related. One of the most pointed came from Manhattan Councilman Robert Jackson, who figured out that the $10-an-hour wage that Related and the city are so afraid to mandate works out to $20,800 a year for a full-time worker. For families of four with one income, that's below the poverty level. But the state minimum wage of $7.25 an hour leaves even more workers in poverty.

"You're basically saying the city is going to subsidize a project that is not even going to pay the minimum poverty level to survive in the United States of America!" Jackson barked.