Armory Benefits Agreement Results From Marathon Negotiation Dance

Sitting in the front during the mayor’s press conference, were (left to right) The Rev. Que English, Desiree Pilgrim-Hunter, Alice McIntosh and Elizabeth Ortega.They made up the team from the Kingsbridge Armory Redevelopment Alliance that negotiated a community benefits agreement with the Armory’s developer. (Photo by Alex Kratz)

A couple of days after the mayor announced that the Kingsbridge Armory would be transformed into the world’s largest ice sports complex, Desiree Pilgrim-Hunter sat across the street from the vacant building in a bustling diner and tried valiantly to stay awake.

“I’m exhausted,” she said, following an appearance on Bronxnet, where she talked about her own recent announcement, which didn’t come with quite the same fanfare as the mayor’s.

Over the previous four months, Pilgrim-Hunter and a volunteer group of negotiators from the Northwest Bronx and Clergy Coalition hammered out what appears to be the strongest community benefits agreement in New York City history.

Pilgrim-Hunter took it one step further, saying its agreement with the Kingsbridge National Ice Center, which won the Armory bid, is “the strongest benefits agreement in the country.”

The agreement was fostered and fretted over by Pilrim-Hunter, Alice McIntosh, the Rev. Que English, Elizabeth Ortega and Taleigh Smith, all members of the Northwest Bronx and Clergy Coalition, a decades-old organizing outfit that has been advocating for responsible development at the Armory for nearly two decades.

It includes a guarantee of living wage jobs ($10 an hour plus benefits or $11.50 an hour without benefits) for ice center employees, 52,000 square-feet of community space, targeted hiring for local residents, local procurement requirements, environmentally-friendly building practices, help for local businesses, and a free after-school youth program for locals.

Julian Gross, who Pilgrim-Hunter refers to as “The Godfather” of community benefits agreements and advises on CBAs throughout the country, including this one, said the Armory agreement “is the first credible CBA in New York City. It’s an important step forward for the Bronx and for the CBA movement nationally.”

For more than a decade, while other municipalities around the country have made community benefits agreements a regular part of the development process, New York City has lagged behind. The agreements, which are signed between community stakeholders and the developers who are building into those communities, often include various local benefits, such as local hiring practices, job training programs, environmental impact mitigation and local infrastructure improvements.

Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s administration has resisted attempts to forge strong community benefits agreements in the five boroughs, saying, essentially, development is good for development’s sake — no additional benefits should be required.

This stance has led to flimsy and unenforceable benefits agreements for projects where the city has handed over valuable public property to private developers. That was the case at the new Yankee Stadium and the Bronx Terminal Market as well as the Atlantic Yards project in Brooklyn.

Pilgrim-Hunter became familiar with the CBA movement during the last attempt to re-develop the Armory back in 2009 when the Economic Development Corporation chose The Related Companies to turn the Armory into a giant shopping mall.

The Coalition, which had formed the Kingsbridge Armory Redevelopment Alliance (KARA) with dozens of community groups, made several attempts to negotiate with Related with the primary goal of guaranteeing that every job at the revamped Armory mall would be a living wage job.

Related considered the requirement a non-starter and KARA, along with Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz, Jr. and the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union, led the campaign to have the mall plan shot down when it came to a vote in the City Council.

This time around, the partners with the Kingsbridge National Ice Center said from the beginning they would pay all of its estimated 260 permanent employees a living wage, commit to providing a free youth program and give up tens of thousands of square feet in the Armory for community use.

But they still needed to put that commitment in writing and iron out all of the details. There was also another group in the running for the Armory, Young Woo & Associates, which wanted to turn the Armory into a mixed-use market with a movie theater, recreational activities and a hip hop museum. They wouldn’t commit to living wage job guarantees, and negotiations never got off the ground, Pilgrim-Hunter says.

It helped KARA’s cause that local Councilman Fernando Cabrera, who had not endorsed the ice center proposal, was calling for the signing of a CBA.

In January, after garnering support from Community Board 7 and elected officials, KARA began engaging the partners with the ice center group, including the group’s founder, Kevin Parker, a former Wall Street executive, in negotiations.

Pilgrim-Hunter said KARA and the ice center partners developed mutual trust over the course of countless hours of negotiations, which often included marathon sessions lasting into early morning. “Sometimes we’d go eight to 10 hours straight,” Pilgirm-Hunter said.

She said they made an effort to see the deal from the developer’s point of view as well.

“They’re not seeing the money until five years down the line,” Pilgrim-Hunter says. “Every dollar you ask for takes money out of their pocket.”

The process was not always linear. There would be progress and then huge setbacks. At various points, the negotiators were sure everything had fallen apart and then the next day, everything was back on.

She didn’t know the deal was done until Parker signed the agreement on Thursday, April 18. It includes various levels of oversight that Pilgrim-Hunter believes will hold the developers accountable.

“We have to give a lot of credit to the KNIC people,” said Pilgrim-Hunter, who raved about the commitment and determination of her fellow negotiators as well as the support from local elected officials.

On the following Tuesday, the mayor made his announcement without once mentioning a community benefits agreement, although Pilgrim-Hunter and her crew watched the show from the front row and celebrated afterward at the Coalition’s headquarters.

“There have been so many moving legs on this,” Pilgrim-Hunter said. “It’s been a dance.”

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