Could the demolition and new development of the Albee Square Mall in Downtown Brooklyn be a human rights violation on par with the blood diamonds of Zimbabwe, child soldiers around the world or Burma’s political oppression?
State Department officials on Saturday came to the vacant lot where the mall stood until 2004 in the first phase of a nationwide investigation into employment and labor violations — our government’s part of an ongoing United Nations crackdown on human rights abuses across the globe.
The UN has been investigating sites for four years — an overseas fact-finding that has had American support — but now the tables are turned and the world government is looking at us.
But Albee Square? Could a stalled real-estate project involving private developers with some public tax subsidies to get work started really be a human rights violation?
Developers scoffed at the notion that their site would be investigated by a worldly entity like the U.N., saying that nothing illegal — or even out of the ordinary in New York — was done before the mall was demolished.
The developers, Albee Square Development LLC, have promised 1,600 new jobs, mostly luxury housing, some affordable housing and retail space in their proposal for a huge tower called City Point — a project that has been given federal tax breaks to keep the ball rolling.
But Ejim Dike of the Urban Justice Center, and other activists who led the feds around the failed construction project, argued that the proposal promises nothing except for below-poverty-line wages and a tower that will help its developers more than the ailing business community surrounding it.
“There are no guarantees taxpayer money will create decent, living wage jobs for residents or displaced workers,” added Kristi Barnes of New York Jobs with Justice. “They’ll mostly be low-wage, part-time retail jobs — and they won’t help an entire nearby block of closed storefronts that haven’t had attention for more than two years.”
The developers disagree. Tom Montvel-Cohen, a spokesman for Albee Square Development, said that allegations that former tenants in the mall were given no notice before their eviction are simply false. The tax breaks are actually loans that are being misrepresented as free money, he added.
“First of all, it’s funny that in this process neither the State Department or [the opposition groups] attempted to call me once,” Montvel-Cohen said. “Sure we’re getting some help to build, but we gotta pay it back, just like many non-profits who get the same kind of federal tax exemptions.”
He said everyone involved the eviction, demolition and new proposal process knew what was going to happen with the site since 2000. He’s not worried about the investigation.
The mall offered low-wage jobs before it was demolished, but now Barnes and Dike are calling for “decent work” — meaning benefits, the option of forming a union and living wages — at the new tower.
In the end, it’s unclear if Barnes and Dike convinced State Department senior adviser Chris Camponovo, who won’t make a recommendation about whether to declare the site a violation until November.
And even if that happens, the issue then goes to the United Nations. And then if the U.N. links Albee Square to the worst offenses of humanity, Dike doesn’t know what kind of slap on the wrist the city and state would get.
But she doesn’t care.
“Hopefully, [the City Point developers will] work with the community to promise actual jobs before this even goes for review,” Dike said. “Either way, we’re looking for pressure from the city and state to get something done.”