Bloomberg Backlash

Bloomberg Backlash

The City Council pushed back against one of the city’s most influential developers and Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg today when members overwhelmingly voted against the Related Companies’ proposal to turn the abandoned Kingsbridge Armory in the western Bronx into a massive mall. The council also extracted considerable concessions from the same developer on its plans for a transformed Hudson Yards. 

In so doing, the council sent two powerful messages to the Bloomberg administration, which has lost its air of invincibility following last month’s surprisingly close mayoral election. First, members are no longer willing to rubber-stamp the city’s development plans, which they want a greater role in shaping. And second, city-subsidized projects like Kingsbridge—one of several large malls proposed in recent years—will now be expected to provide more robust benefits for those employed by them.

Over the last eight years, virtually no land-use project, and none on the scale of the Kingsbridge Armory redevelopment, have been defeated. Some, like the rezonings of 125th Street, Willets Point, and Coney Island, went down to the wire, but all ultimately succeeded through eleventh-hour negotiations. Despite postponing today’s decision twice to buy more time, the project was shot down by a vote of 45 to 1.

“I think EDC tried their hardest,” said councilmember Joel Rivera, who represents the area surrounding the armory, referring to the city’s Economic Development Corporation. “It’s unfortunate we were unable to come to an agreement.”

At the heart of the negotiations was a so-called living wage, a standard well above the legally required minimum that has become popular with labor unions. In the case of Kingsbridge, the community was seeking $10.00 per hour with benefits or $11.50 without. The council argued that because the project was receiving millions of dollars in city subsidies, it should provide a commensurate public benefit.

Ruben Diaz, Jr., the Bronx borough president who led the charge against the project with Rivera, called today’s vote the dawning of a new era, particularly for his borough, which has the highest poverty rate in the city. “That notion that any job is better than no job no longer holds,” Diaz said during a celebratory press conference on the steps of City Hall.

The project was overturned on technical grounds, because the council is only allowed to consider land-use issues when making land-use votes. Among the issues cited by the council were insufficient parking, traffic congestion, and the asthma threats associated with them. “We cannot approve a project that will bring more people to an area that is already choked with traffic and pollution,” council speaker Christine Quinn said at a press conference before the vote. She did add that there were a number of important non-land-use matters weighing on the decision, though ultimately the technical deficiencies of the city’s plan were enough to derail it.

Quinn also heralded her success at Hudson Yards, where the developer has now committed to make 20 percent of the 5,000 housing units affordable, many of them permanently. “Creating affordable housing in any part of the city is not easy, but in my district—where land prices have grown so high in Chelsea and Hell’s Kitchen—it’s even harder,” Quinn said. In the rezoning, which passed by a vote of 47–0, the Bloomberg administration agreed to new green space and tree planting in Hell’s Kitchen; moving ahead on a Hell’s Kitchen South historic district; additional community oversight of the 10 acres of open space at Hudson Yards; and a special construction task force that will address quality-of-life issues that may arise as Related builds out its 12 million-square-foot development.

It remains to be seen how the administration will respond to today’s votes. In a statement, the mayor suggested that he remains unwilling to change his approach, calling a living wage “a line we were never going to cross.” “It’s a disappointing and irrational outcome,” Bloomberg continued, “but New Yorkers can rest assured our administration will not waver in our efforts to encourage private sector investment and job creation in the Bronx and throughout New York City.”

While Quinn cautioned against reading today’s votes as a turnabout in the council’s relationship with the mayor, councilmember Tony Avella—a frequent administration critic and Democratic mayoral candidate earlier this year—saw the council’s action as just that. “I think this is a message that the council is going to assert its role as an equal partner in shaping this city,” Avella said. “For too long, the council and the speaker have just gone along with the mayor.”

Brooklyn representative Diana Reyna agreed, having had her own recent brush with the administration over the Broadway Triangle. Last week, Reyna came within one vote of overturning the city’s plan to rezone the area because there was insufficient affordable housing and community outreach. “Moving forward, we have to set an agenda in this body that will benefit the community, not the special interests,” Reyna said.