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Support Seen for Bronx Hockey Rinks

Support Seen for Bronx Hockey Rinks

Wall Street Journal 8/22/2012

By Laura Kusisto

Two ideas for the Kingsbridge Armory have presented competing visions for the future of the Bronx: a Chelsea Market-style complex with shopping, food stalls and offices versus a celebrity-backed hockey arena drawing people to the city’s poorest borough.

Now, the Bronx political establishment has come down firmly on the side of the hockey arena, planning to announce support Thursday and giving the proposal a distinct advantage as the city weighs a decision, said a spokesman for Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr.

“Precisely what’s at stake here is what the Bronx looks like five or 10 years from now. What is going to go there is not just about having development, but what kind of development that is,” said state Sen. Gustavo Rivera, a Democrat who represents the area and will appear at a rally for the hockey facility Thursday including Mr. Diaz and other elected officials.

The fortresslike armory towers over a diner, a barbershop and a McDonald’s in a low-income neighborhood called Kingsbridge northwest of Fordham University. As the borough’s most prominent empty building, it has served as a symbol of the Bronx’s economic development challenges since 2009 when the City Council rejected a $310 million project to build a mall following a battle over whether the shopping center would pay workers at least $10 an hour.

Politicians were persuaded to support the hockey arena partly because the developer committed to paying workers a “living wage,” said a spokesman for Mr. Diaz. A spokesman for the market proposal said the developer, Young Woo, would guarantee that his direct employees get a living wage, but officials said he couldn’t extend it to all workers in the project.

The debate over a hockey arena backed by former New York Rangers star Mark Messier and a potentially hip marketplace with food and shops comes as there is increased talk of transforming the Bronx’s economy similar to what happened in Brooklyn over the past decade.

While much of the Bronx isn’t primed for economic development any time soon, the Kingsbridge Armory plan is among several notable projects completed or under way there, including what is potentially the world’s largest rooftop farm in Hunts Point and the environmentally friendly “affordable housing” development, Via Verde.

“The Bronx is the last frontier for development,” said Mark Naison, a professor of African-American studies and history at Fordham University.

The plan to build a hockey facility emerged in January after the city sought projects to fill the 575,000 square-foot armory.

With nine rinks and seating for up to 5,000 around the main one, the facility offered a traditional way of generating jobs in the Bronx, following the model of projects like Yankee Stadium: Attract affluent outsiders to come and spend a day or two and spend their money.

But Yankee Stadium has been criticized for drawing spectators who spend money only at the game without generating as much business for local bars and restaurants as expected. Supporters of the hockey plan said the ice rink would be different.

“What attracts me most about this particular project is…they have no intentions of selling a lot inside the armory. People will really have to rely on breakfast lunch and dinner outside,” said Marlene Cintron, president of the Bronx Overall Economic Development Corp.

The plan to transform the armory into an airy market emerged later this year from Mr. Woo, whose proposal captured the imagination of some community leaders.

Dubbed “Mercado Mirabo,” it would include a marketplace charging merchants $60 a day to open a retail or food stall, the nation’s first six-screen “4-D” movie theater, a museum of hip hop, office space for start-ups and sports facilities such as a gym.

Mr. Woo has pitched the plan as a new model for development that would be more inclusive of the community. “It would be a town square for the Bronx,” Mr. Woo said in an interview last month.

The proposal has won strong support from many members of Community Board Seven.

“We have a large population of Latinos in our community, and hockey is not a big thing in their lives. We have waited so long to have some project here, why not offer what the community wants,” said Paul Foster, chairman of the community board. The Economic Development Corp. is expected to pick a winning developer by the end of the year. “We’re in active negotiations with multiple respondents,” said Kyle Sklerov, a spokesman.

Both ideas have caused fears of gentrification in the Bronx. And neighborhood residents walking near the armory Wednesday were split.

Jason Ortiz, 27 years old, said a food market is unnecessary because there are enough stores in the area and farmers markets nearby.

“Why not put something there that will create jobs and give families something fun to do together?” Mr. Ortiz said.

But Robert Spencer, a 46-year-old chef at a hospital in Manhattan, said he was very excited about the prospect of a specialty food market. “It would give you more variety. I think the market would benefit the neighborhood more than a skating rink,” he said.