Rendering of the Bedford Union Armory via BFC Partners
A land use proposal to redevelop the 138,000-square-foot, publicly-owned Bedford Union Armory in Crown Heights to create a mix of different types of housing and a state-of-the-art recreation center has seen successive setbacks in recent months. As proposed, the project has been rejected by community advocates, the local community board, the local City Council member, Laurie Cumbo, and the borough president, Eric Adams, all of whom believe the project should include more affordable housing.
The de Blasio administration, in response, has vowed to work with local elected officials and the city-selected developer behind the project to make it acceptable, especially to Cumbo, who will have the final say in a few short weeks.
But, with any land use redevelopment, the administration must balance the resources at its disposal to achieve maximum effect, and in this case, making the project more palatable to community members calling it a harbinger of gentrification would likely mean making it less profitable for the developer and more costly for the city. As the clock ticks on negotiations and a series of essential decisions dictated by the city’s land use review process, it is unclear what steps the de Blasio administration might take to make a deal happen, advance a key project, and avoid a potentially significant political defeat.
BFC Partners is the developer selected through a competitive bidding process run by the New York City Economic Development Corporation. The initial request for proposals (RFP) was put out in October 2013, prior to Mayor Bill de Blasio taking office, and the project was awarded to BFC in December 2015. Over the next year, the project became a source of significant controversy and become a burning issue in this year’s District 35 City Council race, where Cumbo was running for reelection. It has also become a symbol of the de Blasio administration’s strategy for creating affordable housing across the city and a sore spot and political vulnerability for the mayor, a fellow Democrat who did not endorse Cumbo but sent behind-the-scenes support for her campaign.
The redevelopment proposal envisions converting the armory -- which spans an entire city block and sits defunct -- into an affordable recreation center, 330 rental housing units at various levels of affordability, and 56 condominiums to be sold.
Of the 330 rental units, 164 would be market rate while the rest would be “affordable” for low-income and middle-income families, whereby rents are capped so that tenants pay no more than 30 percent of their income to the landlord. Affordability is calculated according to the 2016 Area Median Income (AMI) of $81,600 for a family of three. The rental units would include 18 units at 40 percent AMI; 49 units at 50 percent AMI; and 99 units at 110 percent AMI, providing rent regulated apartments to households of various income levels.
Of the condos, 44 would be sold at market rate and 12 at 120 percent AMI. BFC Partners would receive a 99-year ground lease on a majority of the site, recouping its costs through sales of the condos, rents on the apartments, fees from the recreation center, and a developer fee from the city.
De Blasio has pitched the project as a much-needed community facility, similar to the Park Slope Armory recreation center, which can be kept affordable in the long-term under the current structure of the plan, with the benefit of creating affordable housing. As it stands, the project does not include any housing subsidies that the administration has used in the past to create more affordability in land use redevelopments. At a September 14 news conference, de Blasio indicated openness to adding more subsidies, though he was noncommittal as to what the city might do to sweeten the deal.
“[W]e want that to be the best possible project for the community, we're going to look at every way to improve it,” he told reporters, noting that the current plan allows for the recreation center to be affordable on an ongoing basis. “That's what we need to come out of this in the end. But we’re going to work with the Council member to see if there is a way to improve the project that would win her support and be more comfortable for the community.”
Cumbo, the Council member de Blasio referred to, recently won the primary for her reelection effort against an opponent who put the Bedford Union Armory at the core of the campaign, accusing Cumbo of being too close to real estate developers and ineffective at stemming the gentrification and displacement sweeping the changing district. Cumbo faced criticism for dithering about the project for months only to oppose it earlier this year, but came to draw a line in the sand on the project. Without her approval, the project is dead on arrival at the City Council, which traditionally votes with the local member on land use applications and will have 50 days to evaluate the deal once it is referred by the City Planning Commission, perhaps with adjustments, unless it is taken completely off the table by then.
Cumbo was not made available to comment for this article. Her spokesperson, Kristia Beaubrun, referred Gotham Gazette to the Council member’s statement in May when she came out against the proposal.
"Since the very beginning our message has been clear: We will not allow public land to be used for the purpose of luxury condominiums,” she said, calling on the mayor to “go back to the drawing board and produce a plan that meets the needs of my Brooklyn neighbors.”
Last month, Borough President Adams, as part of the Uniform Land Use Review Procedure (ULURP) required of all such proposals, rejected the project and recommended that the city increase the number of deeply affordable units and also provide more upper-tier affordable housing units to offset the costs of running the recreation center.
Adams also called for more permanent affordability -- currently, 30 percent of the units are permanently affordable -- and for 20 percent of the rental apartments to be allotted to the Department of Housing Preservation and Development’s “Our Space Initiative” for housing homeless families. “This is our opportunity to get this right,” he said. “This process has gone through years of debate, emotions, and public scrutiny, both for and against the development. We must ultimately come together and find the right balance that is the ideal solution for the future of Crown Heights, and for the optimal reuse of the Bedford Union Armory as a public resource.”
The proposal is currently before the City Planning Commission, which will hold a public review session on Wednesday before voting on the project later this month. The CPC can either approve the project, with or without changes, and send it to the City Council for further review, or it can reject it, although that would be shocking and especially rare.
“It’s hard for me to imagine tweaks at this stage that would address the concerns being raised,” said Emily Goldstein, senior campaign organizer at the Association for Neighborhood and Housing Development. Goldstein, who is not involved in the community efforts around the armory, said the administration isn’t taking full advantage of the city’s ownership of the land, which allows it to demand more benefits than it could if the project were on a privately-owned site. “There are broader concerns about wanting lasting community control,” she said.
Goldstein hits at the heart of the opposition to the project by community activists. The Our Armory Coalition, a group that includes the Crown Heights Tenant Union, New York Communities for Change, Picture the Homeless, The Black Institute, The Legal Aid Society, and others, have called for a community land trust to develop the project, rather than a private firm. That would allow community voices to drive decisions on the property in the community interest, rather than effectively giving a for-profit developer a century-long hold over public property.
“The RFP process for the Bedford Armory has been flawed and corrupt from the very start,” said the coalition, in a statement last month, calling for the project to be scrapped entirely and for the city to issue a new request for proposals. “Elected officials including Cumbo are [sic] failed to address the fact that BFC is a for profit developer, making money off our public land while not providing real affordability to the community. And that’s unacceptable.”
“I don’t see any reason it shouldn’t be explored,” said ANHD’s Goldstein of a community land trust, also insisting that it isn’t the only option available. “There are other ways to build in the idea that public land is a public resource that should remain public. I think there’s a flaw in the calculus the city is using.”
She acknowledged that deeper affordability would require more city subsidies and that BFC’s application may have been the most attractive proposal. But, she said, “It’s shortsighted to do what’s cheaper in the short term. What you lose in the long term is permanent affordability. It’s hard to start from where they are and make it more affordable.”
One housing expert said the city is trying to save as much money as possible, and any subsidies applied to the Bedford Union Armory would mean not being able to use them in other neighborhoods. “The city likes to think of itself as a negotiator on the community side but they’re really not, they’re really just a broker,” said the expert said, who requested anonymity to speak more freely and pointed out that the hurdles to the Bedford Armory project stem from the city’s “deal-by-deal approach” to development, which allows community advocates to pressure the administration with an all-or-nothing opposition rather than pushing for compromise.
That’s the case with the Our Armory coalition. Jonathan Westin, executive director of New York Communities for Change and a strident critic of the administration on its housing policies, is adamant that the only way the project could be acceptable to his group is if there are no luxury condos or market-rate rental units. “They could force the developer off the project and make it 100 percent affordable since it’s on public land,” he said. “Using public land to build luxury housing is a travesty.”
Although issuing a new RFP for the project, and triggering another round of ULURP, could potentially take years, Westin said it would be worth it. “It’s better than a gentrification project that would displace the community.”
Westin also pushed back against the argument that the condos are being used to cross-subsidize the recreation center. A BFC spokesperson earlier told Gotham Gazette that the firm will make a net profit of less than $800,000 from the sale of the condos and that those funds would be put back into the recreation center. The spokesperson also said that the annual cash-flow from all the rental units, which are expensive to operate and maintain, would be around $800,000. Citing Borough President Adams’ recommendations, the spokesperson pointed out that removing the revenue-generating component of the project would require other funds to fill the gap, while noting that the original RFP for the project specified that the developer should not request any housing subsidies from the city.
“This cross-subsidization frame is what luxury developers use to justify luxury development,” Westin said. Instead, he said the city could designate the armory as a land bank and set restrictions on the land, which could then be developed by a nonprofit developer. “It’s completely feasible to do this project 100 percent affordable,” he said.
The project does have its supporters. Geoffrey Davis, a Democratic district leader from Crown Heights, emphasized that the recreation center was a necessity for the community. “Our seniors, our young people, our community will have a place to go to,” he said in a phone interview. “I say, continue to negotiate, work it out. Do not leave the table. If you say kill the deal and walk away, we’re talking about another 30 years.”