May 31, 2013 at 2:56 PM
By Alex Kratz
The Reverend Que English, a member of the Northwest Bronx Community and Clergy Coalition who spent countless hours over several months hammering out what is believed to be the strongest community benefits in the history of New York City, stood in front of the Kingsbridge Armory and claimed victory.
“We did it!” she yelled, drawing a big round of applause from about 100 people, many of them current and former members of the Coalition, a nonprofit group that has advocated for responsible development of the Armory for some 15 years.
Then, drawing even bigger cheers: “You did it!”
English, along with Alice McIntosh and Desiree Pilgrim-Hunter, all volunteer members of the Coalition, formed the trio of negotiators who worked on the community benefits agreement between the developers of the Kingsbridge National Ice Center (KNIC) and the Kingsbridge Armory Redevelopment Alliance (KARA), which includes more than 30 community groups.
Several leaders from those groups, which include several churches, an association of street vendors and a green worker cooperative, also spoke at the rally on the morning of May 20. They all said the agreement realized a huge victory for the community and the Bronx as well as marking a change in how development projects play out in New York neighborhoods.
“We are celebrating a new era of economic development,” English said. “Communities will ask: How did you pull this off?”
English’s crew began negotiating with KNIC in January, enduring marathon negotiating sessions involving KNIC co-founder Kevin Parker and his team of lawyers and lobbyists. Some lasted more than 13 hours and stretched into the early morning hours.
The sides were often close and then miles apart. But neither side gave up. And eventually, it was done.
The result is historic: Guaranteed living wage jobs ($10 an hour plus benefits or $11.50 an hour without benefits); 52,000 square feet of community space that the developer will build out to the community’s specifications; local hiring and procurement minimums that exceed even stated goals at other big projects such as Yankee Stadium or the Gateway Center Mall; environmentally-friendly building and design practices; free after-school programs for local youth; funding to boost local businesses in the surrounding area and stiff enforcement mechanisms.
Parker spoke about the importance of getting the community behind them. Mark Messier, the Rangers hockey legend, spoke about how the youth program will better the area and the game of hockey.
But it was the members of KARA who had fought for the Armory for so long who took the most satisfaction in the day’s festivities.
For many in attendance, the Armory was their first campaign as an organizer for the Coalition.
Laura Vasquez, who just recently stepped down as one of the co-executive directors of the Coalition, said she started out working to get schools at the Armory, which is in the middle of an area that suffers from rampant overcrowding in its schools.
She said it was great to leave her job on a high note and was pleased to see how the Armory turned into a “Bronxwide campaign,” noting that the groups who signed on to the benefits agreement are located throughout the borough.
Luz Milanes, who is 28, started out as a student organizer working under Vasquez’s tutelage through the youth arm Vasquez founded, Sistas and Brothas United, which works hand-in-hand with the Coalition. The Armory was also her first campaign.
“It’s a huge deal,” she said. “To actually see it happen after all these years. I always believed that it was going to happen.”
Fernando Carlo also started as a youth organizer with Sistas and Brothas, working on the Armory campaign 15 years ago. He said the benefits agreement includes “things we always wanted” as well as other benefits that “connect our values.”
“We always felt like something would happen,” he said. “We just didn’t know what.”
Ronn Jordan, a former president with the Coalition, smiled off to the side of the event, basking in the sunshine. “I’m really happy, we got a fantastic CBA out of it,” he said. “I’m disappointed we didn’t get the schools. That was our original campaign.”
But that just gives them something else to work toward, Jordan said. The lesson, as always, he said, “Never take no for an answer.”