Nancy Marrero, a 2008 graduate of the New School with a master’s degree in human resources, was confident enough in her resume in 2009 to post it on a web site called the Bronx Fast Track Unit for employment at the then-unfinished Gateway Center in Highbridge.
Marrero had another thing going in her favor: she was born and raised in the Bronx.
So she filled out a digital application for an opening as an administrative assistant at the mall’s management office. The Bronx Overall Economic Development Corporation, the entity that ran the job-search site, noticed her credentials and she was hired for a salaried, full-time office position with a company, Related Company, LP, that has promised room to grow.
“She fit the bill,” said Omar Benjamin, the business development manager of the job-hunting organization that found her.
To some, Marrero’s story nicely illuminates the 15-month-old Gateway Center’s potential influence on the community: thanks to Gateway, a hard-working local resident has a sturdy platform to start her ascendance toward the once seemingly unattainable middle class. To others, though, similar success stories have come too few and far between to deem the mall a savior on Highbridge’s blighted commercial horizon, and the promise that the Gateway Center will ever become that white knight may be even more distant.
As with most building developments in the Bronx, there were pros and cons about the $400 million Gateway Center from its conception, in 2004. There is little dispute that the mall was an aesthetic addition to the community when it replaced the derelict Bronx Terminal Market, which for years had festered as a dingy eyesore just 10 blocks from Yankee Stadium.
But the economic ripples caused by the Gateway Center’s splashy entrance are more difficult to parse out. Though the mall has introduced jobs to a neighborhood with a high poverty and joblessness rate, business advocates raise concerns about too many low-wage retail jobs flooding the borough, and community-based organizations openly question several measures taken by Gateway’s developers.
And while residents are pleased to have the new shopping options in their neighborhood, they grumble about the mall’s 2,600-space parking facility, which could be viewed as an appropriate symbol for Gateway’s complicated impact on the Bronx: it answers some of the area’s local parking concerns — while charging $3.50 an hour to park.
“It hasn’t been a win-win for both the community and the developer,” said City Councilwoman Helen Diane Foster. “It has been a situation where the developer’s needs and wants are put before the community.”
Others would counter Foster’s claim, pointing to the approximately 2,100 jobs that the mall has introduced to the community thanks to major retailers like Target, B.J.’s, and Home Depot, as well as the high-end shopping opportunities from stores like Bed Bath & Beyond or Best Buy that provide local consumers with convenient new options.
According to Related’s vice president, Joanna Rose, more than two-thirds of the mall’s jobs have been filled local residents, far exceeding the stipulation in the development’s Community Benefits Agreement, and minimum wage requirements even for sales positions were raised to approach the city’s living wage levels.
When Target, which employs about 750 year-round workers, held its initial job fair for the community in the spring of 2009, more than 7,000 applications flooded its offices. Similar totals could be seen at B.J.’s, despite having only 300 job openings, and the Bronx Economic Development Corporation continues to see potential applicants looking for jobs at Gateway every day.
“It’s been a mass outcry of individuals asking for job opportunities,” Benjamin said.
From that standpoint, Gateway has appeared to work at helping residents find work.
In 2004, a private investment firm in New York City, Related Companies LP, purchased the Bronx Terminal Market property from landowner David Buntzman for $42.5 million with no public bidding. Critics, including Representative Anthony Weiner and City Council members Foster and Hiram Monserrate, lamented the swiftness of the deal, contending that it should have been opened to other developers, considering the high demand for the quality land just beyond Yankee Stadium. Weiner pointed toward the close relationship between Related’s C.E.O. Stephen M. Ross and Daniel Doctoroff, then the city’s deputy mayor for economic development, as proof of favoritism with the generous building subsidies bestowed on Related, which had recently completed construction of the new Time Warner building at Columbus Circle. But along with its detractors, however, there were ample groups of supporters, including Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Bronx borough president Adolfo Carrion, who saw Gateway as one of the city’s most necessary revitalization projects. And by August 2006, construction on the 900,000 square-foot facility was already underway.
Twenty-three food merchants were evicted from Bronx Terminal Market, resulting in a loss of more than 400 jobs. According to a news release shortly after the Gateway development deal was made, Carrion stated that the mall was expected to bring in 3,700 jobs. That number was knocked down to 2,100 when the mall was finally opened in September 2009. The Community Benefits Agreement signed by Carrion and the City Council required that at least 25 percent of the jobs hired by Related would be from the community and that $3 million would be set aside for local hiring and job training programs.
Critics of the community agreement, such as Foster, argued that the draft was settled too hastily and that the $60,000 penalty for violating the agreement was an insufficient deterrent for a development firm like Related. In 2007, Bronx borough president Ruben Diaz Jr. called for a full accounting investigation of funds appropriated by the agreement for the setup of the Bronx Fast Track Unit, a web site run by the Bronx Overall Economic Development Corporation for the purpose of aiding local job training and hiring for the mall. Though the results of the investigation have not been issued, in September Diaz announced the appointment of a task force designed to enforce guidelines for further public benefit agreements in the borough.
The agreement wound up costing Related $5 million. Its major provisions included prohibiting the arrival of Wal-Mart, and a space set aside for childcare services and waste management in accordance with environmentally friendly certification guidelines. It did not mention parking prices, minimum wages or placement of the evicted tenants.
Related has no problem with the agreement and sees its Gateway Center as a successful “boon” to the community thus far.
“Our tenants have been very pleased,” Rose said. “They’ve ingratiated themselves in the community and their traffic has been very, very good.”
Before the agreement was signed, a “Task Force Coalition” was organized by Carrion to investigate the development and what the agreement would ultimately mean to the community. The coalition, handpicked by Carrion, consisted of more than a dozen grassroots business development groups, and, according to a report by the New York chapter of the American Planning Association, were given no legal guidance before negotiating with Related over the agreement. Only three members ended up signing the agreement, which was passed nonetheless. Mayor Bloomberg praised the agreement as one that “will go a long way toward meeting the community’s needs.”
“The whole (agreement) was so damned political — too political,” said Jose Rodriguez, the district manager of Community Board 4, which includes Highbridge. He was upset too few grassroots organizations were involved in the agreement’s drafting process. “I think you can hear it in my voice. It was a mess.”
The unemployment rate for the Bronx was at 12.5 percent through November, nearly three percentage points higher than the average for New York City, according to data from the New York State Department of Labor. Highbridge has managed to add more than 2,100 jobs in the last 10 years for an increase of 58 percent, the highest percent change in the borough.
But economists worry that too big an influx of low-wage, low-skill jobs is merely a short-term fix. According to the Center for an Urban Future, a New York-based think tank that examines workforce data, 42 percent of workers over the age of 18 in the Bronx have “low-wage jobs” earning less than $11.54 per hour or $24,003 per year. That percentage is by far the highest in the city; Queens, at 34 percent, comes next.
“I think the proliferation of low-wage jobs in this one borough is a legitimate concern,” said David Giles, a research associate at Center for an Urban Future. “I think it’s well within [the city’s] rights to talk to the developers and chain stores that are going into those places and talk about minimum wage requirements as a condition of whatever government subsidies or rezoning efforts.”
But Arthur Merlino, who heads the Bronx branch of the New York State Department of Labor, said it’s important to help people who are simply looking for part-time jobs, such as high school or college students who need extra money for tuition.
“You have to consider the full range of possibilities here,” Merlino said. “You have a lot of individuals going to high school and college that depend on flexible hours and weekend hours to help with some of their expenses.”
The community agreement stipulated a “maximum effort” to pay employees a “living wage,” which for New York City would be $11.86 per hour. Shannon Rzasa, the director of the Bronx Workforce1 Career Center, which facilitates much of the hiring at Gateway, said the mall’s stores ensure a minimum of $10 per hour for most sales job, and others, like a position on the “Geek Squad” at Best Buy, will pay up to $20 per hour.
Businesses like Best Buy and Target, Rzasa said, are also well known for their reputation to promote from within and develop career tracks starting at a sales or cashier level.
“I think people understand those brands,” Rzasa said. “That it’s not just a $10 per hour job, it’s a start.”
Others are not so optimistic and draw parallels between cashier jobs at big-box retailers and flipping burgers at fast-food chains: rises through the ranks, while occasional, are by no means an ordinary career path.
“I would love for everyone to be honest to the fact that these are low-pay, low-skill and there really is no future within the organization with these types of jobs,” Rodriguez said. “Maybe one or two become managers and then they move on. But I haven’t heard that type of story. It’s somewhat what I expected. Retail work is retail work.”
Gateway’s retailers have worked almost exclusively with the New York State Department of Labor and the Bronx Workforce1 Career Center, an employment service run by the city’s department of small businesses, to fill jobs at most of the retailers at the facility. But they have not worked in the same way with other community-based employment networks, like BronxWorks, a local organization with a substantial workforce development program.
The director of that program, Jessica Nathan, said BronxWorks helps about 3,000 people every year find jobs in Highbridge. She estimated only 15-20 of her clients have been offered jobs at Gateway, and only one or two were offered managerial positions.
“It’s the nature of the game,” Nathan said. “A large employer would shy away from working with a whole number of community-based organizations. We’re thankful those employers come to the Bronx and hire Bronx residents, but can we establish relationships with them? Not always.”
On an unseasonably warm Saturday afternoon in mid-November, the Gateway mall was crammed with customers zipping up and down the escalators and rattling shopping carts along the concrete outer corridors. The carts are mechanized so that their wheels stop spinning once they reach a certain limit outside the store in order to prevent theft. But some people have nonetheless managed to carve out a niche business lifting the stalled carts to customers’ cars.
They are called the hustlers — usually teenagers who ask for a few bucks in return for a lift — and they join a busy micro-economy that has stemmed from the new mall: gypsy cabs who line up along the first level of the parking garage waiting for fares; gyro venders whose carts fill the sidewalks along River Avenue; parking attendants who fill neighboring lots; street hawkers who set up tables filled with candy bars to attract passersby.
They come to take advantage of the foot traffic now centralized at Gateway, after years gone wasted at the old Bronx Terminal Market. These are the undervalued positives of a new community center: the tiny flicks of opportunity that surface after a major development has made its splash.
In speaking with shoppers, almost all would agree that Gateway has been a welcomed addition to the community. It was two weeks before Thanksgiving but Toys ‘R’ Us was already bustling with activity. The wholesale giant B.J.’s accepts food stamps and offers half-priced membership for low-income families so a constant stream of customers rolled out lugging packages of bulk food packages.
The mall has its expected discount chains — Marshall’s, Target, Payless — but also a few that have never been in that section of the Bronx before, like the home goods retailer Bed Bath & Beyond and the upscale furniture seller Raymour & Flanigan.
“I love this store,” said Bronx resident Rosa Cassado, pushing a cart full of goods outside Bed Bath & Beyond. “I’d come here every day if I could. The prices are so good, and the people take care of you here. It’s fabulous.”
Cassado used to have to travel to Yonkers or midtown Manhattan to find shopping that is now located within walking distance from her apartment on 164th Street. Last year, a two-level Bed Bath & Beyond closed in Bay Plaza, making the Gateway Center’s store the only one in the borough.
“I usually get things here for my apartment,” said Shaniqua Morrero, 25, of Pelham Bay. “I like the stuff here.”
“Now they’ve realized the power of our dollar,” said Rodriguez of the high-end chain outlets at the mall. “I think it kind of promotes community development. It promotes economic diversity.”
Rodriguez and others, however, have expressed concern over another issue at Gateway — the cost of parking in the mall’s six-level garage. The mall’s parking lot, owned by Manhattan Parking Group, a private company that controls more than 60 lots across New York City, has a capacity of 2,600 cars and charges up to $3.50 an hour to park — a source of tension in the community for many residents unable to afford such steep prices to park.
“A pay-to-park lot is egregious,” said Foster, who has battled over parking in the Bronx since she was first elected City Councilwoman in 2001. “It is another means by which money is being made off of the working poor.”
Rose said repeatedly that the prices the garage charges are consistent with what other indoor facilities charge within the area. She declined to answer whether or not there is discussion about waiving the fees.
On an average weekday, Gateway’s indoor structure will shelter around 2,000 vehicles, according to M.D. Hossain, the garage’s assistant manager. But Hossain acknowledged those numbers are slipping, and Rodriguez is concerned that that will hurt business at the stores.
“I think it just doesn’t make any sense,” Rodriguez said. “You have a similar type of development in Westchester County and the parking is free, totally free.”
“These stores will say, ‘We’re losing money because people are not using these facilities so we’ve got to go,’ ” he added. “So now they’ll tell corporate America, ‘Don’t come to the Bronx because you won’t make any money.’ ”
It is another issue of debate, atop a long list trailing the new focal point of the Bronx’s commercial landscape.