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Kingsbridge Armory needs more than minimum wage jobs: A public-private partnership is the answer
New York Daily News
Ruben Diaz Jr.

July 1, 2011
View the Original Article

What the Kingsbridge Armory needs for a successful redevelopment is a considerable public-private funding partnership, similar to those at the High Line and other city armories. The High Line got more than $100 million in taxpayer support; that kind of investment could surely help lift up my borough.

In December 2009, the City Council voted to prevent the development of a retail mall at the Kingsbridge Armory, a former military outpost with a footprint larger than two football fields, near Fordham Road. I supported that decision because the developer didn't ensure that employees would've been paid a living wage.

I have approached the discussion on the future use of the armory with only one aim: to expand access to opportunity and upward mobility through a responsible, community-focused investment and development strategy that yields a much higher rate of return for the taxpayer dollar. My critics have stated that my work to defeat the proposed retail mall was irresponsible, but I know we made the right decision.

A mall would have devastated local businesses - at taxpayer expense. And we cannot say that the project would have created the number of jobs promised, anyway.

When the Related Companies constructed the Gateway Center Mall near Yankee Stadium in 2005, executives promised that the mall would employ more than 2,300 full-time workers. As of last year, the mall has created the equivalent of just 986 full-time jobs, less than half of what was proposed. We cannot accept at face value the claim that Related would have created 1,200 new retail jobs at Kingsbridge, given its disappointing track record.

The Gateway Mall is the hallmark of Mayor Bloomberg's approach to job creation: provide developers with city land and/or public assets at deep discounts, then subsidize site conversions with millions of taxpayer dollars in cheap financing, tax breaks and far-below-market rents in order to create poverty level jobs.

The growth of the local retail industry is a driving force for these jobs. More low-wage workers in New York City are employed in retail than in any other sector of the economy. Three in five retail workers earn an hourly wage of $13 or less, and 44% earn less than $10 an hour. The prevalence of low-wage jobs, and the retail sector's fast growth, make these projects poor candidates for public subsidy.

What we need is redevelopment that would not just awaken the empty hull of the armory but also create new business and social activity throughout the neighborhood. The space could be used for a sports arena, a recreation facility, a film studio or a number of other options. With the help of City Hall, we will solicit proposals that meet those requirements.

Such redevelopment will likely require a significant public-private partnership, especially given the poor shape of the building and the inability of most interested parties to finance such a large undertaking.

Other armories in the city - Park Slope, Fort Washington Ave. and Park Ave. - have seen significant taxpayer investment in their redevelopment in addition to private fund-raising. Rather than becoming malls in competition with neighborhood merchants, these armories were developed with recreational use in mind. Each has become a cornerstone of its community.

It is inconsistent to presume that a public-private partnership would be unfeasible for the armory, given the extent of public dollars invested in relatively smaller projects around the city.

The city should look at its success at the High Line, which has become a major amenity to the West Side of Manhattan largely due to considerable public investment, and replicate that model at the armory, emphasizing the redevelopment of the surrounding neighborhood over direct job creation.

Taken as its own entity, the High Line has created a mere handful of jobs - not enough to justify more than $130 million in taxpayer investment in a small strip of parkland. At such spending levels, one has to wonder what, if any, was the city's direct return on its investment.

The real benefit of the High Line is the significant investment it has spurred in the surrounding community, investment based on the draw of the High Line as an attraction to not just New Yorkers, but to visitors from across the globe.

There is no reason that a similar model could not be implemented at the Kingsbridge Armory. I am ready to work with Mayor Bloomberg to put forward a new request for proposals, one that not only focuses on the need for community-minded redevelopment but also does not shy away from significant public investment. If such investment is appropriate for the High Line, then it is appropriate for the Bronx.

Diaz is the borough president of the Bronx.