BAYCHESTER — A Bronx mall is the driving force behind a “shill” community group with ties to a former City Council speaker's consulting firm that is opposing a rival shopping center's construction, critics say.
The group claims to represent local interests but is represented by the wife of the vice president of former City Council Speaker Peter Vallone's consulting firm who lives in Manhattan. The firm's clients include the Trump Soho Hotel, The College Board and the Patrolmen's Benevolent Association.
The "community" group, called Speak Up for a Better Bronx, has been arguing against the proposed Baychester Square development, a retail center and senior housing complex that would be located at the intersection of E. Gun Hill Road, the New England Thruway and the Hutchinson River Parkway, very close to the Mall at Bay Plaza.
In an online petition against the development, Speak Up for a Better Bronx says that the community needs affordable housing and parks more than a new retail development and cites traffic concerns as one of the main reasons behind their opposition.
“If the rezoning goes through, this will mean thousands of additional vehicles from other areas clogging our already congested roads and intersections—making our streets less safe and hurting air quality and our quality of life,” reads the petition, which has 487 supporters.
However, the group is backed by the Mall at Bay Plaza operator Prestige Properties, which Bronx Community Board 12 District Manager George Torres said indicates they are more concerned with business competition than with traffic issues.
"They don’t have a legitimate argument other than they don’t want the competition that this mall might pose," he said, describing Speak Up for a Better Bronx as "a shill for Prestige."
The phone number listed for Speak Up for a Better Bronx, which is based out of Long Island, is the same as the phone number for Prestige Properties, and one of the group's listed lobbyists is Tatiana Constantinople, according to its filing with the New York State Joint Commission on Public Ethics.
Tatiana is married to Anthony Constantinople of Constantinople and Vallone Consulting, which counts Prestige Properties as one of its clients.
"My husband's firm recommended me for this position, and that's where the involvement ends," she said.
She maintained that Speak Up for a Better Bronx had the support of local businesses and community members who fear job loss and traffic congestion and that 64,000 residents had signed their petition opposing Baychester Square. She said the petition was delivered to multiple Bronx community boards and to check with them for copies.
Anthony Constantinople did not respond to a request for comment.
When asked why Prestige Properties established Speak Up for a Better Bronx, company spokesman and longtime political consultant Hank Sheinkopf said that the company "will always support the local community."
He maintained that the group was made up of local businesses, workers, residents and community leaders and said that Baychester Square "will bring destination traffic to the already congested local roads in the area, will cause a loss of tenants and risk the 5,000 jobs that Bay Plaza created."
He deferred a request to speak with community members involved to Speak Up for a Better Bronx.
Baychester Square is being developed by Grid Properties, and company principal Drew Greenwald said he was aware that Prestige Properties was backing Speak Up for a Better Bronx, dismissing the group's civic concerns as invalid.
"When somebody says there will be more traffic and then sticks clipboards in front of people’s faces to sign a petition, that is a scare tactic," Greenwald said. "The reality is that the city has a very complicated process to analyze that stuff."
Torres agreed that Baychester Square would be unlikely to result in a traffic nightmare and said Prestige Properties should be more forthcoming about their involvement with Speak Up for a Better Bronx.
"They haven’t explicitly stated that they're the ones behind this," he said, "and I think they should be more transparent towards that end."