Market-Rate Giveaway

Produce merchants get the boot for a City Hall favorite and yet another Olympic stadium

Along the Harlem River near Yankee Stadium, the wholesale merchants of the Bronx Terminal Market still throw open their vast warehouse-like shops every morning before dawn, welcoming a stream of customers who come from as far as Detroit and Toronto to shop there. Although it's seen better days since its founding in 1935, the market remains the largest provider of ethnic and tropical produce on the East Coast. It supplies most of the city's bodegas and caters to the tastes of growing numbers of immigrants from Africa, the Caribbean, and Central America who can't find the jasmine-scented Thai rice, cactus leaves, or Ghanaian yams they are seeking anywhere else.

About 23 merchants there employ several hundred workers, most of them minorities. The exact number is a matter of dispute, as is the amount of business conducted in the market. The merchants' association claims as much as $500 million a year, although city officials question that figure as well. The one thing no one disputes is that the vendors at the market have survived in spite of—not because of—their old landlord.

Back in 1972, a wily operator named David Buntzman managed to win a sweetheart 99-year lease to run the market, which sits on city-owned property. The lease was awarded by the Lindsay administration shortly after Buntzman delivered a timely five-figure campaign contribution to Lindsay's brief presidential bid. Buntzman promptly let the market slide into disrepair and decay, milking the merchants for whatever he could get.

Terminal condition: The Bronx market, busy for now
photo: Jay Muhlin
Terminal condition: The Bronx market, busy for now

The market became mired in endless litigation with city attorneys pushing to force repairs, while a parade of Buntzman's lobbyists and lawyers, who had even closer ties to City Hall, fought them to a standstill.

The results were numbingly predictable: A once thriving market that had 100 merchants when Buntzman took over festered and shrunk.

Last year Michael Bloomberg announced a solution to what he called a "blight" and an "eyesore." His plan calls for wiping out the produce market and replacing it with 1 million square feet of retail shopping, most likely department stores like Target or Marshalls. The new $300 million mall would create 4,500 jobs, the mayor said. It would be built by the Related Companies, the developer of the new Time Warner Center on Columbus Circle and headed by Stephen Ross, a close friend and former business partner of Deputy Mayor Daniel Doctoroff.

As for the produce merchants, Bloomberg aides said they would work with them to develop a relocation plan.

To date, however, there has been little planning. Tenants were notified on March 4 that they have until the end of the month to accept a buyout package and relocation to separate sites around the borough—or face immediate eviction.

Planning for the new mall, on the other hand, has been intense. Records of the city's deal obtained by attorneys hired by the merchants show that the new Gateway Center at Bronx Terminal Market, as it's been dubbed, is due to receive both deep subsidies and guarantees against risk. More than $80 million in Liberty Bonds have been targeted for the project, and the city has agreed to reimburse Related for most of the $42 million it paid Buntzman to take over his lease should the project fall through.

There are other key aspects of the project that were never mentioned at the mayor's announcement. On the west side of the market, near the river, the city decided to create a new site for the 2012 Olympics, a velodrome—a large indoor arena for bicycle races.

And just east of the market, the city quietly agreed to convey the nearby Bronx House of Detention to the developer to be demolished and made part of the new mall.

Attorneys for the merchants say that instead of closing the book on the market's sad history, the city has only added another chapter.

"The tenants and employees at the Bronx Terminal Market are the very essence of New York," said Adrian Zuckerman, a partner at Lowenstein Sandler, a Manhattan firm. "They are the people who should be assisted and encouraged, not summarily thrown out of their businesses to facilitate a sweetheart development deal and an Olympic facility."

Jung: Location, location, location
photo: Jay Muhlin
Shortly after hearing about the mammoth mall due to replace them, the merchants stressed to both city officials and Bronx Borough President Adolfo Carrión Jr., whose office is charged with assisting the relocation, that they needed to stay together in order to survive.

"The most important issue for us is the location," said Kang-Chae Jung, a vendor who started with 3,000 square feet at the market in 1977 and who has since expanded to 53,000 square feet. "We live off each other here," said Jung. "We share each other's customers so we need to stay together."

"Everyone serves a niche here," said Manny Sanchez, manager of the bustling New York Produce. "If you break us apart, we're no longer a market."

The best the city has come up with so far, however, has been a list of 28 properties scattered around the borough, none big enough to handle more than a couple of merchants. Another vendor, Jae Yun, said he visited several spaces offered through the city's real estate consultant and found they were the same inadequate locales he had seen in ads in The New York Times. "They didn't even have a loading platform," said Yun, who receives and sells goods in hundred-pound containers.

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