December 14 wasn’t an ordinary day at City Hall. This was a day that would signify a shift in the political landscape for Michael Bloomberg’s third term as mayor, when the City Council would take a stand against exploitative development and bring New York retail workers one step closer to attaining living wage jobs.

The crowd, members of the Kingsbridge Armory Redevelopment Alliance (KARA), was hushed in the balconies as suspense hovered over the Council chamber floor. Each Council member had their turn to vote on the Bloomberg administration’s plans to turn the Kingsbridge Armory, a 600,000-square-foot fortress-like structure in the northwest Bronx that has remained vacant for more than a decade, into a shopping mall. Finally, Majority Leader Joel Rivera announced the results: 45-to-1, with one abstention, voted to disapprove the project.

Cheers rang throughout the chambers, yet the mood was bittersweet. This was not quite the victory that KARA and the City Council wanted. KARA, an alliance of local Bronx residents and congregations belonging to the 35 year old grassroots community organizing group the Northwest Bronx Community and Clergy Coalition (NWBCCC) along with the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU)have been fighting for more than five years for responsible development of the Armory. By 2009, KARA included 19 member organizations, including NWBCCC, RWDSU and the Bronx Board of Business Agents of the Building and Construction Trades Council of Greater New York, and garnered support from dozens of elected leaders, including the entire Bronx City Council delegation along with Council members from all five boroughs, Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz, Jr., State Senator Pedro Espada, Assembly members Nelson Castro, Jose Rivera and Carl Heastie, and Congressman José E. Serrano.

The alliance put the idea of redeveloping the Armory on the table, got the Deputy Mayor Dan Doctoroff to tour the Armory and pushed the city to release a Request for Proposals (RFP). All along they were clear with the city on what the community’s vision was: a mixed-use development with recreation and community space, schools on the surrounding property and for-profit businesses that paid workers a living wage of $10 an hour with benefits and respected their right to organize a union.

Days before the vote, Bronx Council members tried in vain to strike a deal with the administration to realize this vision but Bloomberg, scared of creating a precedent on living wage, put the kibosh on the negotiations, giving the Council no choice but to kill the project. Still, by raising the dialogue on a living wage to a city wide level, this vote brought KARA one step closer towards the goal of requiring city-subsidized projects to be developed responsibly.

"Our billionaire Mayor pulled the plug on the Armory because he is against a living wage for workers, even though this project was to receive tremendous subsidies," said Desiree Pilgrim-Hunter, KARA leader and Executive Board member of the NWBCCC. "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. The people of the Bronx have spoken. Every one of our elected officials whose district includes the Armory has supported our demand for a binding Community Benefits Agreement.”

Bloomberg’s wingmen, the Related Companies, claimed that they could not afford to pay the 1,200 or so retail workers in the proposed “Shops at the Armory” above the minimum wage of $7.25 per hour, although Related was slated to receive more than $50 million in tax credits for the $310 million project. KARA asked that Related agree to pay the retail workers $10 per hour, or what is considered to be the “living wage” in New York. Approximately 44 percent of retail workers in the entire city make less than the living wage, but the December 14 vote marked a turning point for retail workers in New York.

“This is a historic moment in the City Council. I can’t remember any big project like this that the mayor initially wanted, that the Council would go against in support of the people,” said Council member Charles Barron.
KARA utilized a variety of tools to leverage the political establishment into opposing Bloomberg’s plan to redevelop the Armory, including an independent traffic study which highlighted how the high volume of traffic to the mall would result in increased congestion and pollution in the surrounding communities. Council member Joel Rivera cited the findings from this report as one reason he voted down the project.

While those involved look to KARA’s success as a possible sign of things to come, organizers continue to fight the battle for responsible development. Labor and community groups are looking at the Queens Center Mall in Elmhurst as the second front of the battle for living wage jobs and community benefits in New York. Most of the 3,100 retail workers in the mall earn at or around the minimum wage, yet the mall's parent company, Macerich, received $48 million in tax abatements. The RWDSU and community advocacy group Make the Road New York are asking that Macerich require increased wages and benefits from its tenants, allow retail workers to join a union without fear or intimidation from their employer and provide more of its space to community functions.

“As we move forward, we must guarantee that all subsidized development in New York City guarantee the permanent workforce have living wage jobs and the right to form unions,” said RWDSU President Stuart Appelbaum, “These guarantees ensure people can strive to live a decent life in New York City.”