Gotham Gazette Mon, 19 Apr 2021 19:56:16 +0000 Joomla! - Open Source Content Management en-gb (Webmaster) At the Bedford-Union Armory, a Community’s Vision is Realized cumbo b

Beford-Union Armory rendering

As one of Brooklyn’s most historic neighborhoods, Crown Heights is a cultural landmark and epicenter for creativity. For many that knew Brooklyn before the age of mega-development, Crown Heights was once home to many recreational spaces for youth and families. I remember growing up in the Crown Heights/East Flatbush section of Brooklyn with a variety of recreational outlets, from the Empire Roller Rink and Bedford Bowl to the Kenmore Movie Theatre to the Crown Heights Youth Collective and more. I always felt like I had somewhere to go.

From 2007 onward, the Crown Heights community has felt the impact of the absence of recreational spaces for young people, left without vital community resources to help navigate young adulthood. For over a decade, our youth have grown up without essential academic and recreational spaces to live, learn, and grow. Today we celebrate the symbolic resurgence of community in Crown Heights with the groundbreaking for the newly renovated Bedford-Union Armory.

Steeped in tradition and legacy, yet newly designed to meet the needs of all residents, this space will cultivate a new era for Crown Heights: restoring unity in the community.

For generations, activists and community organizers have argued that the community needs a vibrant recreational center to be utilized by all residents, and reflect the rich history of the neighborhood. As Central Brooklyn continues to change, it is becoming increasingly more difficult for cultural non-profits to find permanent, affordable spaces to flourish and grow within the community.

As of next year, the repurposed armory will serve as a multi-use facility with affordable housing, recreational space, arts, after-school programming, and more. This week’s groundbreaking is the first step toward realizing the vision that has united our community.

Currently under construction, the Bedford-Union Armory’s vast recreational space will include three hardwood basketball courts, a multi-sport field, and a six-lane swimming pool—all of which will be available to local families and students at nearby schools. When standing inside the armory, it does not take much imagination to envision a completed athletic facility bustling with the energy and excitement of students unwinding after a long day at school. Rooted in the Crown Heights community tradition, the armory builds on the forward-thinking vision of Congressional Rep. Major Owens and other community stakeholders envisioned by creating a neighborhood hub for activity.

Partnerships with groups like New Heights Youth will help empower local students to reach their full academic and personal potential. This organization, which will be housed in the classroom space of the new armory, works with young men and women with an interest in basketball. Their after-school program in Crown Heights will help students to complete their homework before hitting the courts. Since 2005, 100 percent of New Heights students have graduated high school, and 98 percent enroll in college.

With programming that bridges education, arts, athletics, and empowerment, we know that the armory will be a long-standing community center in our beloved neighborhood.

While the Armory’s recreation center will be a community gathering space, it is these non-profit tenants that prove most exciting. Many of those tenants, leasing space at $6 a square foot, are providing programming and services that will truly make a difference with Central Brooklyn’s youth.

Consider, for example, Ifetayo Cultural Arts Academy, the organization that provides African-centered rites of passage programming to over 2,000 students and their families, will take up a permanent space at the Bedford-Union Armory. It will expand to a seven-day-per-week program offering academic support and mentoring in addition to dance classes.

A similar story will unfold with Digital Girl Inc. The organization, which offers computer classes and other services for young women and men, now spends time in public schools, but also lacks a permanent home. When the armory opens its doors, it will have a complete computer lab that will operate seven days a week, making STEM programming the new norm, not an academic luxury for the elite.

There is so much more that could be said about the armory’s impact: over 29 nonprofits and athletic organizations will call it home when it is finished, plus the additional educational and enrichment programs that will utilize the common space and recreational activity. Each of these organizations are already impacting the community and now their efforts will be supported and amplified by the armory’s resources.

All in all, the redeveloped Bedford-Union Armory will offer services to the entire Crown Heights community with the recreation, performing arts, and after-school programming that it has deserved for generations. This week’s groundbreaking is merely the first step forward in this historic project of which all Central-Brooklynites can be proud.

City Council Member Laurie Cumbo represents parts of Brooklyn and is the majority leader of the Council. On Twitter @CMLaurieCumbo.

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At the Bedford-Union Armory, a Community’s Vision is Realized Tue, 10 Dec 2019 05:00:00 +0000
Brooklyn Armory Deal, and Larger De Blasio Development Debate, Move Toward Term Two bedford union armory rendering via bfc

(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.

“Laurie lies!”

City Council Bedford Armory protest voteAmong 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.

Bedford Union Armory December 2017 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

Brooklyn Armory Deal, and Larger De Blasio Development Debate, Move Toward Term Two Sun, 10 Dec 2017 05:00:00 +0000
Don’t Forget: Cumbo Won with Promise of 100% Affordability at Armory ahome3

Bedford Union Armory rendering

For months, thousands of Crown Heights residents have petitioned, testified, marched, and protested against a proposed redevelopment at the Bedford Union Armory, where the plan backed by the de Blasio administration would take a massive parcel of public land and give it to a private developer to build high-end housing and a recreation facility.

The local City Council member, Laurie Cumbo, recently won her Democratic primary for reelection after opposing the deal, promising that she would insist on no luxury condominiums, while her backers promised she’d push for 100% affordable housing at the site. But Cumbo is now moving the goalposts in a dangerous direction.

Crown Heights is one of New York City’s most rapidly gentrifying neighborhoods. In 2015, over 20,000 families faced eviction in the three zip codes surrounding the armory, many of whom lived in the community long before it became a “place to be” for those moving into the area.  Nearly 30% of shelter entrants in the city are from Brooklyn and if this project proceeds as currently designed, even more longtime community members (many whom are people of color and of West Indian descent), will be displaced from their homes and have to move to a shelter that probably won’t be across the street like the mayor’s plan suggests.

From the beginning, the community’s demand has been simple to understand. Kill this deal. Go back to the drawing board to create the truly affordable housing that’s desperately needed.

We need a community land trust with local control over the land, and real low-income housing. The only housing to be built should be to protect the victims of gentrification -- displaced homeless families and those at risk of displacement -- not to facilitate more of the same problem. It appeared that Council Member Cumbo had finally listened to her constituents when she opposed the plan currently on the table.

But in a recent New York Times article on the mayor’s housing plan, Cumbo declared that “the community put the line in the sand: no luxury condominiums.”

This “line in the sand” signifies a bait-and-switch. In fact, it’s simply where Cumbo has moved the goalposts after winning a competitive election, and the Council member should know that the community sees what’s happening.

Redevelopment of the Bedford Armory was the central issue in the recent primary. During the campaign, Cumbo supporters spent $135,846.64 on more than 10 mailers and robocalls in an effort to convince Crown Heights voters to support her. These mailers were clear on Cumbo’s position: shut the deal down without 100% affordability at the armory site.

Cumbo won promising a much better deal, and now she just wants to scrap the condos.

Let’s be crystal clear: a project that moves forward with any luxury housing – rentals or condos – is still not a project for us. A community land trust with real low-income housing would be a practical solution that could contribute to solving the homelessness crisis in Brooklyn and in New York City overall, especially since this is public land. But a housing plan that moves forward with only 18 units affordable to the average resident of Crown Heights is not just unacceptable, it’s an insult.

If Cumbo doesn’t kill the deal, she will have allowed her supporters to openly lie to the electorate during her primary campaign.

And to add injury to insult, Mayor de Blasio is busy explaining away his failing housing policies by blaming the constraints of the free market and capitalism. But those restraints don’t exist on public land like they do on private land. The Bedford Union Armory is a wholly socialist enterprise — like the mayor claims he would want.

What is the mayor doing with these “socialist” powers? Making a conscious decision to privatize land and “harness” gentrification, rather than fight it.

Public land is a vanishing resource in New York City. At a time when we continue to struggle with a record homelessness crisis and massive displacement of low- and moderate-income people, many people of color, it should also be priceless.

This is particularly egregious when more and more human beings are being warehoused in shelters, just like the one recently opened a few blocks from the armory, with a number of residents not being from the area, as the mayor claims is his goal. Despite what the mayor and Council Member Cumbo say in their press clippings and campaign advertisements, their policies show exactly where their priorities lie: luxury housing to make developers rich and house people who have no fear of being homeless, and shelters for far too many others.

It really is still a tale of two cities out here.

But Cumbo still has a chance to live up to the promises she made during her primary campaign, cutting out greedy developers and giving us a community land trust with 100% affordable housing on this precious public land.

Or she can get rid of a few luxury condos and tell us that this is some kind of victory, despite the fact that half the units would still be luxury rentals and a pitiful 5 percent would be affordable to the average Crown Heights resident, the same residents who have supported her.

We look forward to working with Council Member Cumbo on developing the community land trust this neighborhood needs, especially on public land, as we know she wants to do the right thing. There’s still a chance.

But make no mistake, we won’t let the wool be pulled over our eyes.

Monique “Mo” George is the Executive Director of Picture the Homeless. On Twitter @pthny.

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Don’t Forget: Cumbo Won with Promise of 100% Affordability at Armory Tue, 17 Oct 2017 04:00:00 +0000
Can Redevelopment of the Bedford Union Armory Be Saved? bedford armory rendering

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.

AMI apartments Bedford Union Armory

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.”

by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette

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Can Redevelopment of the Bedford Union Armory Be Saved? Tue, 03 Oct 2017 04:00:00 +0000
Ede Fox Unsuccessful in Second Attempt at Election to City Council ede1

Ede Fox, in white, with campaign help (photo via Facebook)

At 7 a.m. on primary day, September 12, Ede Fox had already been campaigning for an hour, since polls opened, at P.S. 20 in Fort Greene. The neighborhood is part of the 35th City Council District, where Fox was trying to unseat incumbent Democrat Laurie Cumbo, who had bested Fox four years ago when the seat was open.

That year, Fox finished third in a five-way primary, 1,825 votes behind Cumbo. This year, she decided to take Cumbo on again, motivated by community concerns around affordability and gentrification, and encouraged by the head-to-head nature of the primary. Cumbo, however, now had advantages of incumbency: name recognition, more institutional support, easier access to donors.

Fox had worked in the City Council as an aide and was particularly moved by one major land use project in the district: the potential redevelopment of the vacant Bedford Union Armory, which sits on a large piece of public land in Crown Heights, and is the center of controversy as the administration of Mayor Bill de Blasio seeks to move ahead with a proposal to turn it into a mixed-use facility that includes condominiums, market-rate rental apartments, rent-capped apartments at different levels of affordability, and recreational space. Fox believes the proposal would usher in more displacement to a community already feeling squeezed, and wants to see the land put into a public trust, not turned over to a private developer who won a city request for proposals.

While the issue, and Fox’s attacks against Cumbo about her stance on the project, which Cumbo eventually came out against, has gotten most of the attention, the race was not only about one topic. The district is diverse, including Clinton Hill and Fort Greene, where Fox started her day, feeling optimistic.

Early on this primary day, Fox told Gotham Gazette that 2013 was “much more difficult to capture attention, partly because there were so many candidates for mayor, and so much going on up-ballot that that’s where a lot of people had their attention focused. So this time around, there’s been a lot more focus on this race, and that’s been great. It’s helped us really capture the attention of the 35th district residents.”

Fox was confident that she would win the day, despite the fact that incumbents are almost impossible to unseat in New York City Council races. Media reports regularly listed the race as a close one, and one of the few where an incumbent was vulnerable. There has been a very organized and vocal community advocacy effort to defeat the Bedford Armory proposal, with much antipathy aimed at Cumbo and de Blasio.

“I think that voters all over the district are really struggling around the issue of housing,” Fox said. “That’s the number one issue people to raise to me when I’m at their doors and talking to them.”

Although the armory issue has dominated headlines, the issue is not as salient in the more gentrified, more white parts of the district, Fort Greene and Clinton Hill.

In Fort Greene, numerous voters approached Fox and inquired about laws surrounding bicycling.

“A lot of people prioritize biking here,” she said.

Fox, who used to live in Amsterdam, the biking capital of the world, was sympathetic to the plight of cyclists, vowing to ensure that streets remain safe for them. Fox said that Brooklyn could learn a few things from Amsterdam.

“The Netherlands has a very different take on human rights. All the apartments have balconies. Everyone has a right to fresh air and sunshine,” Fox said, adding that the Dutch do not spend 100% of their incomes on rent. “I want to see a country like that.”

Many voters in Fort Greene were completely unfamiliar with the armory issue; one father of two on his way to vote exclaimed “holy smokes” when Fox described the situation to him. Fox said that partnerships with big real estate developers to create affordable housing are not working, and that a change in direction was warranted.

According to Fox, the media had focused in on the armory, but the district prioritized a range of issues, including criminal justice reform and transportation.

As the candidate moved further east into the district, into Clinton Hill, Prospect Heights, and Crown Heights, the issue of affordability, and the armory in particular, became evidently on voters’ minds. Those who spoke with Fox and with Gotham Gazette proclaimed the armory as the most prominent issue informing their vote. Kris, from Clinton Hill, accused Cumbo of being “in the back pocket of developers,” a common accusation by her critics.

Kris stated that, in the district, she would vote for anyone who went against real estate developers. She also said she was voting for de Blasio in the mayoral primary, though, since there were no other good choices. De Blasio has regularly been criticized from the left for being too close to big real estate and given that his housing policies, while demanding new extractions from developers, rely on the private market to help create affordable housing by building a lot of new market-rate housing as well.

“This partnership with real estate to create affordable housing is not working,” Fox said.

The primary between Fox and Cumbo was personal and nasty. At a candidate forum in July, Fox accused Cumbo of being in the pocket of big developers, which led Cumbo to accuse Fox of running a negative, insult-based campaign.

There was history to the attacks on Cumbo as tied to big real estate, given that in 2013, Cumbo was the beneficiary of a large independent expenditure by the Real Estate Board of New York (REBNY), seeking to boost her candidacy in the hopes of a more friendly face in the Council.

In 2013, REBNY’s PAC, Jobs for New York, spent $229,616 in independent expenditures on behalf of Cumbo, and $27,098 in expenditures against Fox and Alabi. This year, Jobs for New York did not make any independent expenditures. The Hotel Trades Council’s PAC, Hotel Workers for Stronger Communities, spent $113,588 on behalf of Cumbo in independent expenditures, as of the September 1 filing with the city’s Campaign Finance Board.

Cumbo notably did not take a position on the Bedford Union Armory until May, which many activists and neighborhood residents took as tacit approval of the proposal. Facing mounting pressure, she came out against it, and regularly explained that she had listened to the community, which wants no part of the armory sold off, which condominiums would do, and wants more affordability in the rental housing. She said she had been supportive of a general redevelopment, but had to study the specifics proposed, and that when she did, she heard her constituents and said it would need to be renegotiated.

The fate of the project is now unclear, as there remains time to change some of the specifics, though not in grand fashion, or to kill the proposal altogether. Many, including Fox, expressed skepticism that Cumbo would retain her opposition to the proposal if she were to win the primary election.

Fox and Green Party candidate Jabari Brisport saw an opening to potentially defeat a weak incumbent. Fox told Gotham Gazette that the community does not have a strong advocate in the City Council with regards to the armory, and that she was someone who would be “firm” and would “stand with the community.” Both candidates took the position of developing the armory into 100% affordable housing, rather than the de Blasio-approved plan of 50% of rental units and 20% of condo units being designated affordable at the site.

Endorsements for the primary were split between Cumbo and Fox. Cumbo received more union support and support from elected officials and news publications, while Fox received ample support from advocacy organizations and political clubs. Among Fox’s endorsements were the Transport Workers Union, the United Automobile Workers, Citizens Union, Tenants PAC, Streets PAC, and New Kings Democrats.

Despite the flaring tensions, a number of residents walked into their polling stations without having made up their mind, especially in Fort Greene, where the armory issue isn’t as dominant. Becca Delmonte, of Fort Greene, told Gotham Gazette as she walked into her polling station at P.S. 20 that she was undecided and hadn’t been closely following the race.

“[They] both seem like great candidates,” she said. “Both support issues I do,” she added, highlighting women’s issues in particular. Cumbo is co-chair of the Council’s Women’s Caucus and chair of the Women’s Issues Committee. The incumbent also recently gave birth to her first child, a son, just a few weeks before the primary. It was not long before she was back on the campaign trail, necessitated by the tight race, or before she and her son appeared on campaign mailers and handouts, explaining to voters that key issues were now even more important to Cumbo because she had become a parent.

Fox called last-minute voter indecision normal, saying that in local races, voters often make up their mind in the last three days of the race, making the last day of campaigning especially critical. A lot of times, she said, “people only pay attention in the last two days.”

Throughout the day, Cumbo and Fox worked to sway those voters throughout the district. At times, Cumbo was joined by several or her many allies among her City Council colleagues.

Late in the day, Fox told Gotham Gazette that Cumbo’s campaign had sunk to low blows to win votes. According to Fox, Cumbo’s campaign was chasing down voters and heckling Fox and her volunteers, which she called an “indication of desperation.” Fox also stated that Cumbo’s chief of staff, Monica Abend, was yelling incessantly, apparently not learning a lesson from a recent New York Post article that alleged Abend had said voters should choose Cumbo because Fox doesn’t have a good relationship with de Blasio.

Indeed, de Blasio has been supportive of Cumbo, though he did not make a formal endorsement, in part because it may not help Cumbo given the armory controversy. Reports indicated that de Blasio’s allies and supporters were quietly helping Cumbo, which none of the parties denied or confirmed when Gotham Gazette asked earlier this campaign season.

When Gotham Gazette asked Fox on primary day whether she had voted for de Blasio in the mayoral primary, she said it was a private matter.

Council Member Jumaane Williams, not facing a heated primary, stopped by to assist Cumbo, leafleting the neighborhood and parking a bus with his own campaign literature covering the windows in front of the school.

When the polls finally closed, Fox returned to her campaign office in Crown Heights to watch returns. She said she was feeling good about the campaign, that most of the people she spoke to were supportive of her campaign, and that she felt confident of a win.

“Every place I was, there was a high level of support,” she said.

It didn’t work out that way, however; Cumbo won 58% of the vote to Fox’s 42%. Cumbo will now face Brisport and Republican Christine Parker in the general, but is expected to win handily given the Democratic Party’s dominance in the district.

For Fox, the second attempt to win the seat did not turn out as planned. Cumbo is likely to win a second term, after which she would be term-limited from running again.

“We did a fabulous, fabulous job,” Fox told her volunteers and campaign staff. “It took a quarter of a million dollars to beat us this time.” After her speech ended, the room erupted in a chant of “Ede!”

by Ben Brachfeld, Gotham Gazette

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Ede Fox Unsuccessful in Second Attempt at Election to City Council Fri, 15 Sep 2017 04:00:00 +0000
Heated Rematch in Central Brooklyn, Where Incumbent Seeks to Hold City Council Seat cumbo campaign office 35 crop

Council Member Laurie Cumbo (@cmlauriecumbo)

Hundreds of Crown Heights residents and community activists laughed and jeered at a recent community forum as a lanky man wearing a paper mask of Mayor Bill de Blasio joked about bringing affordable housing to their neighborhood.

The event was punctuated by moments of levity but mostly dominated by anger from residents who feel their elected representatives have sold out their interests to the real estate industry, with a focus on the proposed redevelopment of the vacant Bedford Union Armory. The de Blasio administration, with a developer, is proposing a combination of affordable and market rate rental apartments, condominium units, and recreation space for the massive site. City Council Member Laurie Cumbo, who represents the district, did not attend the August 2 forum focused on the project -- she was just days from giving birth to a son -- and when representatives of her office tried to speak, they were shouted down.

The event was the latest outpouring of resentment over the Bedford Union Armory project, which has taken center stage in the City Council race for District 35, where Cumbo, a first term Democrat, is facing a formidable primary challenge.

Candidates include Democrats Cumbo, who hopes to continue the work she has done over the last three-plus years if given another term by the voters, and Ede Fox, who lost to Cumbo in 2013 but is running again, seizing on community anger over the future of the armory and related issues of affordable housing and gentrification.

Cumbo won in the 2013 primary with 7,561 votes. Olanike Alabi came in second with 5,369 votes and Fox was just behind with 5,340. Cumbo then ran uncontested in the general election, which will not be the case again this year as she is slated to have a Republican opponent and a Green Party opponent.

Aside from the hotly contested Democratic primary -- which is very likely to determine the eventual winner in the heavily Democratic district -- there is also a Green Party primary between Jabari Brisport and Scott Hutchins, and Republican Christine Parker is also running, though neither Hutchins nor Parker appears to be running much of a campaign (both were absent from two recent candidate forums attended by Gotham Gazette).

District 35 incompasses central Brooklyn neighborhoods such as Prospect Heights, Fort Greene, Clinton Hill, parts of Crown Heights and Bed Stuy. Before Cumbo, it was represented by current Public Advocate Letitia James.

Cumbo, Fox, and Brisport met at a forum on Saturday, July 15 hosted by the Flatbush Tenant Coalition as well as at a forum hosted by the Washington Avenue Botanic Block Association on July 25 to discuss focal issues of this city election cycle and the 35th District race, such as affordable housing, education, afterschool programs, and criminal justice reform. They answered moderator and attendee questions that helped further illuminate key issues of the race and their stances on them.

As with many instances where an incumbent seeking reelection is challenged, much of the election will come down to a referendum on Cumbo’s tenure. One unique factor in the race: Cumbo gave birth to a son on August 4. She was back on the campaign trail two weeks later.

In an interview with Gotham Gazette prior to the birth of her son, Cumbo stated that she “talks to the baby” about all of the things she’s worked on while pregnant with him, and that it is a motivating factor for her as she seeks a second term.

Fox has been on the attack against Cumbo, connecting her to big real estate, accusing her of being a weak leader for the community, especially with regard to the proposed redevelopment of the armory. Cumbo touts her commitment to the district, including using her discretionary funding to bolster social service and arts organizations. She also points to her leadership of the Council’s women’s issues committee as it pertains to women and families in the district and elsewhere.

As Brisport eyes the general election against the winner of Cumbo versus Fox, he is running on a typical Green Party platform of social, economic, and environmental justice that overlaps a good deal with and is bolstered by the type of politics popularized by Senator Bernie Sanders, himself a democratic socialist, in the 2016 presidential campaign. Brisport must win what is a rare Green Party primary.

Neither Hutchins, the other Green candidate, nor Parker, the Republican in the race, could be reached for comment for this article, nor has either been present at the two late July candidate forums.

Ede Fox
“I’m running because, in watching the current Council member, she’s not putting [in] the work that is necessary,” Fox told Gotham Gazette. “You know, funding some programs and stuff is great, but it doesn’t help a senior get a SCRIE application filled out so they can make sure that they can afford their rent, and it doesn’t make sure that we’re preventing landlords from illegally harassing and evicting tenants because they want to get the apartment out of rent stabilization. There’s just a tremendous amount of pressure on people in this community in terms of displacement, and that stuff is just not getting addressed, and that’s a problem.”

“We have seen over the last 10 years a dramatic change in the development and displacement from downtown Brooklyn,” Fox continued, “and that wave is moving east, and we need someone who is really committed to focusing on that, and focusing on helping individual people.”

ede fox via her campaignFox (pictured, middle) has worked for the City Council off and on for 11 years, most recently for the Speaker, Melissa Mark-Viverito, where until January she helped work on a variety of programs she hopes to bring into the 35th district.

“One of [those projects] was to create a preservation task force, which was designed to understand the housing stock in specific districts, and to work in partnership with HPD to build out a short- and long-term preservation plan to preserve existing affordable housing as well as to find ways to create new affordable housing,” said Fox. “That’s a thing that can be implemented in the 35th if you have the will.”

Additionally, Fox hopes to allocate funds to local tenant organizations to help preemptively identify struggling tenants and prevent evictions, along with helping to create community land trusts similar to the projects she worked on for Mark-Viverito’s home district of East Harlem, she said.

“Community land trusts can then ensure that we’re creating permanent affordable housing, not stuff that’s going to expire in 25-35 years, but that’s permanent, and that’s the kind of housing that we need in this community,” said Fox. “Affordable housing that’s created needs to be created to match the incomes of the populations that’s there, otherwise it’s not affordable and it’s not helpful.”

In focusing on affordable housing, community change, and gentrification, Fox is honing in on perhaps the most pressing issue for the central Brooklyn district she hopes to represent, and quite possibly the key issue across the city -- one which Mayor Bill de Blasio has dedicated much of his own focus. However, Fox’s candidacy is in part based on the belief that de Blasio is not doing enough to protect and create affordable housing or ward off gentrification. The mayor’s housing plan is largely predicated on leveraging the private market to help fund affordable housing units.

“The Real Estate Board of New York, REBNY, raised about $12 million in 2013 to elect developer-friendly Council members,” Fox said, “...this was a super PAC, and they put money into various races around the city where they endorsed candidates, and my point is that these guys aren’t stupid - they’re putting their money where they think they’ll have a candidate who will work with them and carry their water. So they spent $260,000 doing [mailers] for Laurie Cumbo and sent out door-knockers to do the same and get her elected.”

The support for Cumbo and other candidates from REBNY, through its Jobs for New York super PAC, became a point of controversy in 2013, with Cumbo eventually asking the PAC to stop its independent expenditure efforts on her behalf. But, Jobs for New York did spend hundreds of thousands of dollars in support of Cumbo and against Fox and Alabi.

“Over the last four years, she’s shown her willingness to carry the concerns of the developers and put those first, and that’s most evident in the Bedford Union Armory project,” said Fox. “This is a project that she supported until about three weeks ago, because it was no longer politically feasible for her to.”

The Bedford Union Armory project proposal was designed to transform the facility into 56 condos and 330 rental apartments. The project proposal also includes plans for a substantial recreation center planned to include an indoor soccer field, basketball courts, and an indoor pool. The developer selected by the city’s Economic Development Corporation to complete the project is BFC Partners, which agreed to keep one-fifth of the condos and half of the rental units as affordable units, pegged for certain income-level earners, but was met with significant pushback from nearby residents who maintain that because it’s being built on city land, the project should be 100 percent affordable.

With Cumbo now against the plan, its future is unclear -- the de Blasio administration, Cumbo, and BFC are in ongoing negotiations around tweaks that might placate community concerns and get Cumbo’s support. Some, like Fox, believe Cumbo will back the current project plan as soon as the election is over. Cumbo insists she has heard the community and will hold out for certain affordability demands and will continue to oppose condo sales.

When it comes to education, community and parental involvement is at the core of Fox’s plans, she explained. Concerned that the Department of Education often leaves parents in the dark, Fox said she will work to increase parental involvement in the school system, as well as leveling the playing field for lower income schools by securing more funding.

“They don’t feel like they’re a part of the decisions that [the Department of Education] is making, and so they get informed late about things, and I think generally what the schools need is a representative who is going to push DOE, and DOE has to be responsive to the Council member, but they don’t always have to be responsive to parents [unless] there is a massive outcry.”

Fox’s platform lists other positions on critical issues. On transportation, Fox calls for an increase in funding for the MTA, though it’s not specified whether this entails a greater city contribution to the capital plan, as well as expanded bus service and bike lanes. Fox also calls for an end to cash bail and solitary confinement, and working on finding and implementing alternatives to incarceration.

Laurie Cumbo
Cumbo, the incumbent, was moved to run for office in 2013 after criticizing the state ending allocation of member items, or funds that state Senate senators and Assembly members got to dole out to nonprofit organizations, like the one she founded.

“I began to spend so much time rallying and participating, and so many other issues came across…that I decided that I wanted to enter into the political world,” Cumbo told Gotham Gazette. “I had been asked by many people over the course of years to consider running, and when Public Advocate Letitia James decided that she was going to run for Public Advocate, she encouraged me to do it.”

Born and raised in a nearby Brooklyn area, after attending Brooklyn Technical High School, Cumbo attended Spelman College before earning her graduate degree in Arts Administration from NYU. She used that degree to found MoCADA, the Museum of Contemporary African Diasporan Arts, in Brooklyn.

“What it allowed me the opportunity to be was a director of a not-for-profit organization, to establish leadership in the community, to create local jobs in the community, it gave me an opportunity to provide arts and educational programing in our NYCHA developments, and it provided me an opportunity to create after-school programs,” said Cumbo. “I created 10 after-school programs in different schools throughout the 35th Council District.”

Cumbo said she wants to continue to expand on the initiatives she’s started since joining the City Council in January, 2014 after her victory in the contentious 2013 Democratic primary.

“When looking to run for public office, I feel that it’s important to have a track record of real, tangible leadership in the community,” said Cumbo. “People should be able to point to your accomplishments, people should have an understanding of your leadership style, and they should have an understanding of what you’re able to get done by having participated or seen or experienced it.”

She continued, referencing accusations made by Fox. “To say that I sold out the community is really flagrantly false. It’s easy to just come along and just look at the record of the incumbent and begin to attack, without really being able to talk about what you’re about, or what you've accomplished, or what you’ve done.”

Issues important to Cumbo during her reelection campaign include further expanding after-school programs, continuing to strengthen not-for-profit organizations (City Council members receive hundreds of thousands of dollars in “member items” to divvy up), and the ever important affordable housing struggle in the district.

“Affordable housing continues to be a huge issue in our community,” said Cumbo. “One that, through a lot of collaboration with all of the elected officials, we’ve been trying to do all that we can to stop the hemorrhaging [of funds] that’s happening in our communities.”

Cumbo has also been recorded as saying that upzoning can happen “with or without the community board,” according to a video posted by the Movement To Protect The People roughly a year ago.

“You can boo, you can boo all you want,” said Cumbo.

Aside from promising to continue the work from her previous term, Cumbo’s current campaign platform includes working towards “Investing in Economic Development,” “Strengthening and Stabilizing Not-For-Profit Organizations and Service Employees,” and “Reforming our Educational System.”

And, Cumbo may be getting a boost from Mayor de Blasio’s team, though no one seems to want to talk about it.

Jabari Brisport
“This campaign started out of a deep frustration with our current society, and our current economy, and the level of participation that I was doing with the government,” said Brisport, who has spent the past 10 years as a political activist. “I felt like I was not doing enough - there’s only so many times you can stand outside a politician’s office and yell and scream before you decide that you want to take yourself into City Hall.”

Brisport’s activism has centered around his participation in political theater, such as the group Political Subversities, which he works with to draw attention to major issues in the community, as well as organizing rallies for groups like Black Lives Matter.

“My biggest challenge would be running as an independent third party candidate on the Green ticket. I would say that if we can’t get enough visibility that will be a huge hindrance to the campaign, people will just vote down the Democratic line,” said Brisport. “But I believe if people know about the campaign, they’ll be interested in the campaign, and that’s been my biggest triumph. People hear ‘Green Party’ [and] they think that’s this impossible thing, and they start to get disinterested, but when they start to hear more about what I’m pushing for in this campaign, they start to get excited about it…It’s a great snowball effect.”

Brisport listed affordable housing as the biggest issue of his campaign, saying that it’s the district’s biggest issue “and really, the city’s biggest issue.”

“And it’s not just the Bedford Union Armory,” said Brisport. “It’s the evictions at Ebbets Field Houses…it’s the encroachment of landlords and special interests on some public land or onto the property of the little guy - the working class - and that’s something we really need to take a bigger stance against.”

Police reform is also at the forefront of Brisport’s campaign, and giving communities and citizens more control over the NYPD and “turning the power structure of the NYPD on its head” are essential to his vision for the district, he said. Ultimately, Brisport said he would like to see an end to the police system as we know it, and instead wants to utilize active community members to ensure citizens feel like they are being policed fairly.

Brisport is a member of the DSA, or Democratic Socialists of America, which he feels helps him approach community issues from a new and innovative perspective and gives him a clearer end goal.

“For example, a progressive Democrat might say they want to fight for affordable housing, which [seems] more like a reactionary thing; my goal would be more like community control of the land. I believe all land should be de-commodified,” said Brisport. “I don’t have policies that can do that at the moment, but we can take the next step towards that.”

According to Brisport that next step would be making the Bedford Union Armory part of a community land trust.

He continued: “The same thing for policing. A progressive Democrat may be arguing for [body cameras], I’m pushing for a restructuring of the police so that it is run by communities, and not run alongside or against communities.”

by Jynn Schubert for Gotham Gazette
@JynnWasHere  @GothamGazette

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Heated Rematch in Central Brooklyn, Where Incumbent Seeks to Hold City Council Seat Thu, 24 Aug 2017 04:00:00 +0000
De Blasio, Cumbo Teams Mum on Campaign Aid 13291399165 906bc2fcac z

Mayor de Blasio & Council Member Cumbo (arm raised) (photo: Rob Bennett/Mayor's Office)

As she seeks re-election, City Council Member Laurie Cumbo has key advantages that come with incumbency -- name recognition, access to donors, and a degree of institutional support. Included in that support is the backing of Mayor Bill de Blasio, a fellow Democrat also running for a second term this fall, though the mayor and his team appear to be helping Cumbo quietly, in part because of the complicated politics surrounding a key issue in her district, the redevelopment of the vacant Bedford Union Armory.

Politico New York recently reported that the mayor’s team has thrown its weight behind Cumbo’s campaign, aiming to ensure that the key rezoning effort in her district is successful. As reported, the effort raises questions about potential violations of the city’s Conflicts of Interest law and rules governing campaign activities by city officials, but both the de Blasio and Cumbo camps have been tight-lipped about the mutually beneficial arrangement.

In the August 10 report, Politico New York’s Sally Goldenberg, citing more than a dozen sources, detailed efforts by de Blasio’s close associates to bolster Cumbo, who is facing a tough primary challenge from Ede Fox. Goldenberg noted that the city's Office of Intergovernmental Affairs, which is run by former de Blasio campaign operative Emma Wolfe, has organized volunteers for Cumbo’s campaign and arranged for them to hire an aide from the office of Council Member Julissa Ferreras-Copeland. They also urged unions to back Cumbo and expressed the importance of the race to the Working Families Party, which has decided not to make an endorsement. “High-ranking de Blasio staffers have offered the Cumbo campaign operational advice,” Goldenberg wrote, “and are prepared to provide more assistance as the primary nears, the sources said.”

As Gotham Gazette sought to clarify what campaign help was being provided to Cumbo by City Hall, perhaps blurring or crossing lines meant to separate government and political work, the response was silence. Mayoral spokesperson Eric Phillips refused to comment, as did a spokesperson for Cumbo’s campaign. De Blasio’s own reelection campaign did not respond to a request for comment.

Over the years, the city’s Conflicts of Interest Board has issued numerous advisory opinions on the restrictions on political activity by public servants. Perhaps one of the most pertinent, from 2012, prohibits city employees from working on political campaigns on city time or with city resources.

In the most recent advisory, issued August 17, the Board noted the general intent of the law as it pertains to political campaigns. “Certain principles run consistently through each of these Advisory Opinions: while public servants may engage in many political activities, they must keep those activities separate from their official City duties,” the advisory reads. “This means, most significantly, that public servants may not use their City positions to benefit a political campaign, and they may not use any City time or resources for campaign-related activities.”

The COIB does not comment on potential violations, each of which can carry a civil penalty of $25,000 for an erring public servant. Officials can also be fired, suspended, or lose vacation days if their employing agency deems it appropriate.

The Office of Intergovernmental Affairs interceding in a City Council election could violate that basic principle. “The real issue is, are they accounting for their time properly?” wondered Blair Horner, executive director of the New York Public Interest Research Group, a government reform organization. “Are they using their powers responsibly?”

Horner said it wasn’t unusual or inappropriate for the mayor to wield his political clout in another elected official’s favor. “It’s not unheard of for an executive to use their political muscle to help legislative candidates,” he said. Indeed, the mayor has attempted to use his influence in the past to try to sway state Senate elections towards Democrats in 2014. “What would be inappropriate is using the public office for partisan advantage,” Horner said.

At the core of de Blasio’s support for Cumbo is the Bedford Union Armory project, a proposal to turn the 138,000-square-foot facility in Crown Heights into a mixed-use development with affordable and market-rate housing, condos, and a state-of-the-art recreation center. The project has become the burning issue of the District 35 race, creating space for Fox to challenge Cumbo in the primary and bringing increased attention to the de Blasio administration’s rezoning efforts that have been unpopular with communities fearing displacement and gentrification. Cumbo only came out against the project after months of delay, during which Fox painted her as a real-estate-friendly elected official who had betrayed her community. (De Blasio’s City Hall and Cumbo have also been largely aligned on other matters over the course of the term.)

Fox said she wasn’t perturbed by de Blasio’s unseen support for Cumbo. “I think that Laurie Cumbo is aware she’s in a very competitive race and is looking for all the support she can get,” Fox said in a phone interview.

Although Fox recognizes that she’s at a disadvantage running against an incumbent, she said she isn’t deterred. “I knew going in that I was not going to get much institutional support so this is no surprise,” she said. “I knew the power of incumbency. I was expecting and preparing for it.”

She has been particularly skeptical about Cumbo’s opposition to the Bedford Armory project, and worries that Cumbo may give in to the administration’s preferences if she wins the primary election on September 12. “I think that is a very real question,” she said, “and I think voters are weighing whether they can trust their representative given her long-standing support for the project. The language I’ve heard from her has not made it very clear that she’s standing against the project as a whole.”

Come primary election day, in a district where some residents are up in arms about the de Blasio administration’s housing and economic development policies, Cumbo’s ties to the mayor and his team may be her undoing. “Ultimately, the voters will decide if it’s a good or bad idea,” said NYPIRG’s Horner.

by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette

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De Blasio, Cumbo Teams Mum on Campaign Aid Mon, 21 Aug 2017 04:00:00 +0000