CO-OP CITY — In his third State of the Borough address on Thursday, Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr. touted recent economic coups — including new stirrings at the Kingsbridge Armory and the much-debated move to lure Fresh Direct to the borough.
But the annual speech also touched on still-simmering controversies, such as the police shooting this month of an unarmed Bronx teenager.
Diaz also claimed some credit for the pending living wage bill, challenged the mayor’s education legacy and called for a Bronx Health Summit to address statistics that show the “Bronx is a leader in everything that is bad.”
Addressing a crowd that included the heads of New York's four other boroughs as well as Christine Quinn, the speaker of the City Council, Diaz described his “holistic vision” and “conceptual master plan” for the borough which, he said, “is reshaping the Bronx and advancing a strong agenda for its future.”
Early in the speech, Diaz referred to “our newest Bronx neighbor, Fresh Direct.”
The online grocer agreed this month to remain in New York rather than move to New Jersey, and to move its operations from Queens to a 500,000-square-foot facility it will build in Mott Haven. In exchange, the state, city and the Bronx will provide the company with nearly $130 million in tax breaks and grants.
For the $3.5 million in loans and grants that the Bronx offered Fresh Direct, the company signed a written agreement that includes promises to hire Bronx residents for a certain percentage of jobs and to eventually convert to a green delivery truck fleet.
In his speech, Diaz said his office’s written arrangement with Fresh Direct would “secure jobs for Bronx residents, a greener environment and stimulate economic activity.”
Several Mott Haven residents and activists, as well as a few elected officials, opposed the deal. They questioned whether Fresh Direct required such a generous public benefits package and how the city would hold the company to its hiring promises, and they feared the impact that scores of new trucks would have on their neighborhood’s air quality.
Outside of Thursday's event at Harry Truman High School in Co-op City, a few protesters handed out flyers and hoisted a banner that read, “Stop Fresh Direct.”
Two years ago, Diaz led the charge that derailed a plan to convert the massive Kingsbridge Armory into a retail mall because the developer, Related, would not agree to pay at least $10 an hour with benefits to all mall employees.
While many supported Diaz’s push for a so-called living wage, others said the Bronx leader should have welcomed any new jobs in the borough with the highest rates of unemployment.
On Thursday, Diaz could boast that he worked with the mayor’s office to jumpstart a new round of development proposals for the armory this January, and that Speaker Quinn is likely to introduce a bill this year that incorporates some of the living wage proposals that Diaz called for in 2009.
Speaker Quinn and a majority of councilmembers had “emphatically endorsed” his economic premise, Diaz said.
“If you take heavy taxpayer subsidies, you must do better by your workers,” he said.
Diaz, who some rumor may eventually run for a citywide elected position, used part of his speech Thursday to call for greater police accountability.
“We must demand that our police department is better trained to work with our communities in a respectful fashion that honors the dignity of life,” he said.
On February 2, a plainclothes narcotics officer fatally shot 18-year-old Ramarley Graham inside his family’s Wakefield apartment. The police had suspected that the teen was armed, but no gun was found in the bathroom where he was shot.
The borough president also threw a dart at Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s education policies, which the mayor has long insisted have dramatically raised student achievement.
“Despite the claims of some,” Diaz said Thursday, “we know that our public schools have, at best, remained stagnant over the past decade.”
Increased parent engagement, early learning options and access to higher education are necessary, Diaz said.
To combat the borough’s exceptionally high rates of asthma, obesity “and everything in between,” Diaz announced that his office would host a health summit in 2013.
“This event will bring together the best minds on health and wellness from across the nation,” he said.
Near the end of his speech, Diaz noted an odd accomplishment.
Last December, he cut the ribbon at a ceremony celebrating the move of Bronx’s only lesbian and gay community center into a sparkling new location.
What was odd was where the new space is housed.
“Get a load of this,” Diaz told the crowd, “it was at the Reverend Ruben Diaz Gardens,” named after Diaz’s father, Ruben Diaz Sr., the state senator and evangelical minister who is an outspoken opponent of gay marriage.
After the crowd laughed for a few moments, someone in the audience shouted out a phrase, and Diaz Jr. repeated it.
“Sí se puede,” he said. Yes, we can.