One of Crown Height’s major untapped pieces of real estate, the Bedford-Union Armory, is getting a makeover. But a debate about the nature of the redevelopment on this city-owned land is exposing fault lines between parts of the community and the real estate developers who would re-shape it.
In recent years, plans for the armory on 1579 Bedford Ave. have shifted—from a vision of a community-oriented project to plans for a for-profit development with fewer community benefits. The shift has sparked a movement to arrest what some see as a slide from community to commodity, and some local politicians are joining activists in demanding a broader social role for the armory. They are pushing against the current plan, which includes 20% affordable housing but, in the eyes of some activists, should become a 100% affordable project.
“This is public property, and the administration has a great opportunity to turn it to a not-for-profit that can actually deliver deeper affordability for Crown Heights,” said one the activists, Renate Pumarol of New York Communities for Change. Her organization started a petition for 100% affordable housing.
The dispute over the Bedford-Union Armory is symptomatic of many trends shaping Crown Heights and other gentrifying parts of Brooklyn. “We have a very astute community, well-educated, from all walks of life. What they have in common is that they want this to remain a neighborhood community, not a transit community, not a community where people can come in and make a quick buck at their expense,” Assembly Member Walter T. Mosley told The Brooklyn Ink. Mosley is among those local politicians who have signed an open letter demanding greater accountability in the use of this public property.
In a neighborhood where every new bar is a statement, and every tenant who leaves presents an opening to a rent hike for the next one, the fight over the armory seems less about the mission of a single building than about the definition of a neighborhood.
The first turning point for the armory came in 2013, when the state turned over the armory to New York City, free of charge. “You have resources there that were stagnant,” former Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz explained, in a phone conversation with The Brooklyn Ink. Back in 2012 Markowitz proposed a plan to turn the armory into “a catalyst for the area.”
Looking back on the project, he recalls a context in which “The armories in New York City, over a long period of time, had transferred from their original purpose to train National Guard and were used primarily for military. Over the years, the military didn’t need those armories any longer so they provided them to the cities. There were several instances in which the armories were reused and served a great community purpose.”
Markowitz pushed for reusing the building, and the New York City Economic Development Corporation issued a request for proposals to reactivate the armory in November 2013. But he ended his 12 years in office the following month: “Time had run out for me in terms of my role as Borough President,” Markowitz said.
Despite a reticence to comment on the controversy surrounding the current redevelopment, Markowitz acknowledges he knows “there is some contention as to the plan, as there are with any plan,” before adding “In my 12 years as borough president, whenever you try to change or add anything to a community or borough there’s always going to be pushback.”
Developers BFC Partners and Slate Property Group won the request for proposal and presented their plan for the armory in December 2015. Among other things, it featured building condominiums within the armory building itself and an adjacent housing development with only 20% affordable housing. Some people in the community felt they were being short-changed on housing, and the pushback exposed the developers to a barrage of opposition and criticism.
On August 10th, 2016 came one of the clearest signs that conflict was escalating, as members of the Crown Heights Tenant Union and New York Communities for Change protested in front of the armory. They were pushing for the removal of one of the developers, Slate Property Group, due to what they considered Slate’s history of building luxury housing and “creating high end markets all over the borough.” To activists, Slate was among the developers driving gentrification in Brooklyn as longtime residents struggled to pay rent.
Before that point, it had seemed as if the winning proposal had garnered enough support for smooth sailing. “Activating the Bedford Union Armory has been a labor of love, a truly community-driven process where the residents of Crown Heights have ensured their voices were heard,” Brooklyn Borough President Eric L. Adams said during the official presentation. Further validation of the project had come via the participation of the foundation named for the Knicks basketball star, Carmelo Anthony, to “assist with the fit-out of the recreational facility,” and the non-profit organization CAMBA, to “operate and provide associated programming for the recreational facility and community event space.”
Yet, for all that proponents could point to a long list of potential community benefits from their redevelopment—what they considered affordable housing, top-notch recreational facilities, and community spaces—activists and residents said they wanted the use of this public land, a dwindling resource, to tackle more squarely the area’s growing housing crisis.
Ean Fullerton, director of communications for the office of New York Sen. Jesse Hamilton, said the opposition to the current development is all about a community determining its own future: “Especially with respect to public land, there’s this requirement that you use public land for public purposes, and this is why the local community and the public here pays taxes and states: This is what we want, this is what we require, and making sure that they have a voice.”
Two plans for an armory
Removed from the political turmoil, Marty Markowitz offers his take on the shape-shifting nature of the city and its neighborhoods: “New York is never stagnant. You have to try to make a change that represents a meaningful difference. Anticipate not just current but future needs. It’s not easy. No matter what you decide there will be those who disagree.”
Back in May 2012, Markowitz tried to do that, commissioning a plan called The Bedford–Union Armory: Vision of a Neighborhood Anchor. A look at that plan allows for a comparison with the developer’s current vision.
Prepared by the NYU-Wagner Capstone team, the Markowitz report conceived the repurposed armory as a neighborhood institution. As with the current project, the Markowitz report acknowledges the need to include a housing development to generate revenue, and both plans agree on replacing the parking area with new development.
Unlike the new development, however, the Markowitz report would preserve the entirety of the historical armory building—divided into Drill Hall and Head House— which it fully allocates for public use. In so doing, the Markowitz report respects feedback the writers obtained from neighbors who asked “not to use the space inside the Armory for apartments.”
The current proposal, as outlined by New York City Economic Development Corporation, diverges from the Markowitz report mainly in two key ways that impact housing and community use. First, part of the Head House (which is community space in the Markowitz report) is renamed as “Former Stables” and becomes 56 condominiums. Second, the estimated housing to be built goes from 400 units in the Markowitz report to 330 in the current development, “half of which will be set aside as affordable.” Both changes run opposite to the community’s main demands for more affordable housing and community spaces.
Crown Heights flexes its activist muscle
The backlash from the community against the proposed project was swift. As a result, two key actors withdrew from the development. On August 24, Slate Property Group sold its stakes in the project, following mounting pressure due to the company’s involvement in the controversial Lower East Side Rivington House project. (That project, in which a non-profit nursing home was suddenly sold for residential purposes despite deed restrictions, was seen by activists as warning of things to come for the Bedford-Union Armory). On September 14, it was the turn of The Carmelo Anthony foundation to withdraw its support, after activists called on the basketball star to stop lending his name to the project.
BFC Partners, the remaining developer, is preparing to undertake the project on its own, applying for the Uniform Land Use Review Procedure (ULURP) it needs for the change in land use necessary to begin the development. Plans are to obtain the desired certification by the first quarter of 2017, with the first facilities set to open by 2019.
Before that can happen, however, the developer is facing another round of scrutiny as politicians join activists in arguing that the project as proposed does not sufficiently meet neighborhood needs in terms of housing, pricing, and use of community space.
Although BFC Partners argues that large parts of its proposal would provide for community use, two neighboring institutions contacted by The Brooklyn Ink denied having had any communication with the developers. At the Miller Evangelical Christian Union Church on President Str., which stands in front of where the 330 housing units are set to go up, Rev. Rupert Harrison said: “We have not been contacted in any way.”
Across the street from the armory on Union St. is the W.E.B Dubois Academic High School, described by the website indieschools.com as a “second chance for over-age, under-credited students who are serious about earning their high school diplomas.” The institution and its 104 students seem, both in numbers and proximity, a likely beneficiary of the project’s three basketball courts, three tennis/convertible soccer courts, and swimming pool, all opening next door. A representative of the school who declined to have her name used, however, said that the school had not been approached.
Meanwhile, as for affordable housing, the current plan calls for some 67 units of all the housing at the new armory to be affordable—between $775 and $979 under current formulas using New York median income. Meanwhile, a total of 99 units are priced at $2,203 per month, with 164 to be listed at the market rate of $3,700 per month.
Critics doubt such rents are within reach for locals. One such critic, Ean Fullerton, of the office of New York Sen. Jesse Hamilton, explained that the problem with using New York’s median income for rent formulas is that it is above that of Crown Heights, and cannot reflect what affordability looks like to locals. The resulting affordable prices remain too expensive for the neighborhood. “When you set affordability by the median income of the region you end up with something that isn’t affordable for your local residents here. That’s a major issue.”
Whether affordable or not, the 67 “affordable” units amount to 20 percent of the total, allowing the development to conform to the “80/20” housing program, which offers tax exemptions for them. Community organizers in Crown Heights, however, are not satisfied with getting only 20 percent affordable housing, considering that the land in question started off city-owned property.
In response to the plan, local politicians signed a letter asking for the armory to be made 100% affordable, and directed it to the city’s Economic Development Corporation. Signatories include New York State Sen. Hamilton, Congresswoman Yvette Clarke, Assemblyman Walter T. Mosley, and Assemblywoman Diana Richardson. “Our concerns with the proposed project outweigh the supposed good that the project does in the community. Public land is a public resource, and we only have one chance to get this project correct,” the letter reads.
Assembly Member Mosley explains his support this way: “We want to make sure that the community is not just being heard, but that they’re being listened to. The only way we can be listened to his if we make our own demands, and set them apart from that developer.”
Meanwhile, as positions become entrenched, the man who started the conversation on the Bedford-Union Armory’s, Marty Markowitz, sees conflict and change as part of the equation. “I lived in that area in the 1940s, 50s, and 60s; it was a different area then than it is now,” he said. “And now its another, different Crown Heights. Things change, everything changes. You have to hope that change is one that works for the majority.”