(Armory rendering via BFC) (photos within piece by Rachel Holliday Smith)
Following years of ferocious debate, negotiation, protests and anguish, City Council Member Laurie Cumbo was finally ready to vote “yes” on the redevelopment of the publicly-owned, vacant Bedford-Union Armory.
At very nearly the last minute, she and the administration of Mayor Bill de Blasio worked out a deal for the Crown Heights building with the city’s chosen developer, BFC Partners, the night before a crucial City Council land use committee vote on the controversial redevelopment. A week later, Cumbo stood amid the full Council, ready to approve the project.
But before that could happen, chanting interrupted the meeting.
“The city is not for sale! Kill the deal!”
In the balcony of the Council chambers, a small crowd of activists, housing advocates, and Crown Heights residents shouted as security escorted them out.
Among the protesters were the fiercest and most frequent critics of the armory project: members of New York Communities for Change (NYCC), the Crown Heights Tenant Union and their allies, who have pushed the city to scrap the plan for nearly two years, leading dozens of protests and supporting anti-armory plan challengers to Cumbo during her successful yet contentious reelection campaign this summer and fall.
From the beginning, the coalition of activists saw the vacant armory and the publicly-owned land beneath it as an incredibly valuable resource that should be used to improve a rapidly gentrifying community, with deeply affordable housing to help stem the tide of displacement.
By all accounts, the pressure moved the needle significantly. When it was announced in late 2015, the redevelopment included plans for 330 market-rate and affordable rentals, two dozen luxury condominiums, and a 45,000-square-foot recreation center. Following months of protests by NYCC, CHTU and others against any and all market-rate housing on the site, with particular ire directed at the condominiums, a new deal took shape.
In the last-minute agreement, BFC cut out the condos as the city promised $50 million to subsidize more affordable — and more deeply affordable — rental housing on the site. In addition, the planned state-of-the-art recreation center would remain, with its own affordability requirements, supported financially by 150 market-rate apartments, officials said.
To the casual observer, the armory agreement may appear to be a major feat for all sides. But as the project cleared the last hurdle in its public approval process, its detractors see it as a failure, emblematic of problems with the de Blasio administration’s approach to affordable housing citywide: doing too little for those who need it most, failing to slow gentrification, and relying too heavily on for-profit development. In particular, critics found fault with income restrictions at the project, which originally set aside a majority of affordable apartments at the site for households making above the area median income.
To the mayor and his team, the armory is a solid compromise and exactly what the administration is aiming for with much of its ambitious housing plan — leveraging public resources to spur the construction of mixed-income housing by private developers.
As Housing Preservation and Development Commissioner Maria Torres-Springer put it to Gotham Gazette, the city worked hard to meet the needs of the community while “ensuring we have a financially feasible project.”
“That’s always a complicated balancing act,” she said.
The project passed the Council on November 30 with 43 in favor, two against, and one abstention. As she cast her vote, Cumbo said the concerns of the project’s critics “have been taken into account” while underscoring all the good the project will bring: affordable housing, recreation space, jobs.
“This is progress. This is an opportunity. This is getting something done in our term,” she said.
The mayor echoed that sentiment when speaking about the project this summer, saying that “ultimately, it’s something that could do a lot of good for the community.”
“Right now that armory is doing no good for the community,” he said at an unrelated press conference.
But “getting something done” isn’t good enough for some in the neighborhood, including Crown Heights resident Esteban Giron, a local tenant organizer and member of the neighborhood community board’s land use committee, who was one of those escorted out of City Hall when the Council approved the deal.
A day after the vote, Giron said he’d rather see the armory remain vacant than be rebuilt under the new terms.
“What did we do, from the very beginning, except say we want 100 percent affordable housing?” he asked.
For critics of the project, the sticking point on the redevelopment has always been this: the sprawling former military complex on Bedford Avenue sits on an extremely precious commodity — public land — and that limited resource, especially in gentrifying neighborhoods like Crown Heights, must be used to most effectively combat the city’s housing affordability crisis.
The 1904 building was used by the state as a training facility (complete with horse stables, a drill hall and rifle range) until its decommissioning in 2011, when then-Borough President Marty Markowitz, upon the urging of Crown Heights locals, began an effort to study what could be done with the hulking, 122,000-square-foot structure and its large lot.
Markowitz’s chief of staff at the time, Carlo Scissura, now the president of the New York Building Congress, said the idea “was going to be similar to the Park Slope Armory,” the large YMCA-run recreational facility on 15th Street.
“The plan here was recreation space, community space, maybe education, maybe seniors,” he said of the Bedford-Union Armory. “But housing was never part of it.”
In 2013, at the end of the Bloomberg administration, the city’s Economic Development Corporation put out a request for proposals (RFP) for the site. Housing officially became part of the armory plan when, in late 2015, the EDC under de Blasio chose BFC and Slate Properties to redevelop the vacant building.
When the city announced the chosen plan for the site, officials from EDC and HPD as well as the developer stressed the proposal was a jumping-off point, subject to negotiation and local input. At the announcement, BFC Partners principal Don Capoccia promised to “continue to engage the community” to ensure that “at the end of the day, this project is responsive to the needs of this community.”
Within months, protests began, led by nearby tenants and residents with a big assist by NYCC, a group with a long history of activism — and ties to de Blasio. Formerly, NYCC was known as Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now, or ACORN, before a national controversy surrounding the group in 2009 prompted a rebranding. The group has backed progressive causes for decades and, in 2013, put their weight behind a longshot progressive candidate for mayor: Bill de Blasio.
But that close relationship with the then-candidate has cooled through his years at City Hall, largely based on de Blasio’s approach to development and housing, and NYCC pulled no punches as it revved up to fight the armory plan.
The group went after Slate Property for their dealings in the controversial 2015 sale of a Lower East Side home for seniors. They called out then-Knicks player Carmelo Anthony — whose foundation had signed on to help with the recreation center — for getting involved with a project that would “further exacerbate the gentrification of Crown Heights,” according to a published letter written to the basketball star by activist Bertha Lewis, former leader of NYCC when it was known as ACORN.
Soon afterward, both Slate and Anthony dropped out of the project.
In rallies, open letters and editorials, the groups fought against the armory plan with a consistent message: Scrap the deal completely, start from scratch, and build only affordable housing on the site, with no market-rate units. They called for the property to be moved to a community land trust.
As the months dragged on, the project became a central issue in Cumbo’s re-election campaign, with two challengers — Democrat Ede Fox and Green Party candidate Jabari Brisport — promising to start from square one on the armory if elected. In May, facing Fox’s primary challenge, Cumbo backed away from the armory plan, announcing she would not support it if it included luxury condominiums.
As Fox, Brisport, and other critics of the project continued to hammer her, Cumbo’s campaign touted her opposition to the plan, at times using misleading language. An independent expenditure by the hotel workers’ union paid for pro-Cumbo flyers and robo-calls indicating she would support the armory plan only if it included 100 percent affordable housing, a claim Cumbo said she never made, was aware of, or approved.
“It wouldn’t even make logical sense for me to do that because I know going into [negotiations] that you’re not going to get 100 percent,” she told Gotham Gazette. “So it wouldn’t be beneficial for me to promise something that I can’t deliver.” Cumbo did not, however, disavow the independent expenditure or ask the hotel workers’ union to stop its mailers.
Cumbo beat Fox by more than 16 percentage points in the September primary and won reelection with 67 percent of the vote in the general election (Brisport did exceptionally well for a Green Party candidate, seemingly buouyed by armory resentment). In an interview, Cumbo said after the election she stuck to her line in the sand about the condominiums until the end, even when “the administration continued to negotiate other aspects of the project without dealing with the 800-pound gorilla in the room.”
“I, the community, the local stakeholders, the elected officials, said that they did not want any sale of the armory to happen,” Cumbo said. “I knew I wasn’t going to support a project that had luxury condominiums.”
Even with a win on that aspect, the Council member acknowledges that, as with any great compromise, no party leaves the table with everything they want, herself included.
“I’m not walking away completely happy, but I am walking away satisfied,” she said. “I’m walking away with a project that I know is going to benefit this community for generations to come.”
To the de Blasio administration, the plan is a “win, win, win,” according to housing Commissioner Torres-Springer, who formerly led EDC.
“We’re generating the types of opportunities that really address many sides of the complex affordability question in this city — certainly affordable housing, but also access to services, recreation, community, and jobs,” she said.
The city is making that happen in partnership with BFC, a for-profit developer, which will pay $2 million per year in ground rent for the armory site, both in cash and in at least $1.25 million in “community benefits,” calculated as discounts on classes, memberships, space for nonprofits, and rentals to community groups within the newly built armory.
For the city’s part, the $50 million in public funds will pay for 250 units of subsidized housing, set aside for households making between about $25,000 and $51,000 per year for a family of three, HPD said. In the deal, BFC will use income from the 150 market-rate rentals on the site to operate and maintain the recreation center. The company is projected to make an annual profit. A spokesperson did not return multiple requests for that projected amount.
To Torres-Springer, the city’s job in a deal such as the armory is “making sure that we are stretching every public dollar as much as we can.”
The philosophy — of partnering with and relying on private, for-profit developers to build affordable housing — is foundational to the de Blasio administration’s overall housing goal of building and preserving 300,000 affordable units by 2026.
In an interview with The New York Times in October, Alicia Glen, de Blasio’s powerful deputy mayor for housing and economic development, said “there’s no such thing” as housing built by the city alone.
“It’s all about, to what extent can you use the resources of the private sector, and the resources the public sector has, to put together the best deals you can possibly do,” she said.
To advocates who fought the armory plan, some of whom fight de Blasio administration plans around the city, that idea is anathema to the goal of solving the housing crisis, particularly for low-income and homeless New Yorkers. To NYCC Executive Director Jonathan Westin, it’s a “failure of imagination” by the administration.
“They’ve shown that they very clearly do not prioritize public housing,” or housing built and operated by the city, he said. “They do not actually believe in it. And it’s hugely problematic.”
Particularly at the armory site, where 150 market-rate apartments will be built on the publicly-held property, the administration’s plan is “completely egregious,” according to Katie Goldstein, executive director of the statewide housing group Tenants and Neighbors, which has played an active role with NYCC to fight the armory plan.
“When the city owns the land, to give that away to a for-profit developer? It’s such punch in the face to the community who was organizing around this,” she said.
Lewis of the Black Institute said “not one iota” of the deal is satisfactory, and trying to deal with the de Blasio administration was worse than “all of the other fights that we’ve had,” including in the Bloomberg and Giuliani administrations.
“You meet the new mayor, he’s the same as the other old mayors,” she said. “It’s really disgraceful that they should even utter the word ‘progressive.’”
“To privatize something means that it has to make a profit,” said Giron, the Crown Heights resident and tenant advocate. “To me, that’s never going to be an appropriate approach for people of color, for low-income people, for New York, period.”
The mayor and his team don’t necessarily disagree much with their critics, at least in terms of describing the city’s approach to housing and development. To de Blasio, Glen, Torres-Springer, and others, the number one thing the city needs is more housing, at various levels of affordability. The mayor stressed that goal when speaking about the armory project in July.
“We need both – we need market and we need affordable housing. That’s our mission. Every time we do it, we’re looking to maximize the amount of affordability and to make the affordable housing as consistent with the community as possible,” he said, speaking to a caller on WNYC radio's The Brian Lehrer Show.
And de Blasio regularly argues that it is essential to create more affordable housing for middle-income families, while, after pushback, he has also repeatedly adjusted his larger housing plan and more localized projects, like the armory redevelopment, to create deeper affordability.
Pending a final approval from Brooklyn’s Borough Board — a last step in rezoning that will almost certainly pass, given the City Council’s overwhelming support — the armory deal is headed for a closing, a spokesperson for HPD said, and the city expects construction to begin in 2018.
At the same time, housing advocates are still planning to fight the project any way they can.
The day before the full City Council vote on the redevelopment, the Legal Aid Society filed a lawsuit challenging the city’s measurement of the project’s potential effect on displacement of rent-stabilized tenants. In arguing that the city is not taking into account displacement outside a 400-foot area surrounding the site, the plaintiffs hope to convince a judge to compel the city to adjust the project or, if nothing else, set a new standard for similar projects in the future.
Last week, a judge denied the group’s request for a temporary restraining order on the armory project. The next hearing date in the suit is set for February 8, according to an EDC representative.
For Giron, who lives two blocks from the armory, finding any way to stop the project — even “the hard way,” with a lawsuit, he said — is the only option. In the space of three or four years, he estimates about “half the people have been emptied out” of rent-regulated buildings between his home on Franklin Avenue and the armory on Bedford Avenue, he said, victims of an already super-heated housing market in Crown Heights.
“I walk over there and I feel that void,” he said.
For him, the armory was an opportunity to reverse, or at least slow, the displacement brought by gentrification, not accelerate it; the fact that any market-rate apartments will be built there, and without union labor, are unacceptable to him. So, he and the rest of the coalition will continue to fight, into the next four years — or longer, if necessary.
“I can see a path…where there’s not even a shovel put in the ground before Laurie’s out of office,” he said, referring to Council Member Cumbo, whose second and last term ends in 2021.
“We’re going to fight until we can’t anymore, until we’re gone or they’re gone,” he promised. “But we’re not going to stop.”
by Rachel Holliday Smith for Gotham Gazette