Falling Fortress

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The mothers of the Bronx are still waiting for their peace dividend.

They see it on Kingsbridge Road, looming over their overcrowded schools, in the unlikely form of the virtually deserted Kingsbridge Armory.

he unschooled eye sees a leaking, cracked, graffiti-scarred colossus that has been abandoned since 1994. Parents like Kingsbridge Heights resident Isabel Colon see a school.

Last year, Colon’s son shared a fourth grade classroom with 50 students and two teachers at PS 86, a badly overcrowded elementary school just behind the armory. Conditions have improved a little this year, and much of the school’s student body has been farmed out to a hodgepodge of annexes and leased facilities. But she says he still has a hard time concentrating because of all the noise and movement in class.

The space shortage is a familiar story in District 10, the second most crowded district in the city. So a coalition of parents and residents posed a simple question: Why not just use the armory?

Ask the politicians.

For years, every plan to turn the armory into something useful has been ignored, shot down or delayed to death.

Hatching plans for the building has become a local obsession in the neighborhood, thanks to the Northwest Bronx Community and Clergy Coalition, whose members have kept doggedly bringing the subject up. Ideas have included schools, a bookstore, a restaurant, a theater, youth programs–even a Krispy Kreme donut shop.
The planning process really got serious last summer when the coalition teamed up with Brooklyn’s Pratt Institute Center for Community and Environmental Development (PICCED). Pratt architects drafted some initial renderings that tucked three 800-seat schools around a central athletic space. The plan also included a community center, greenmarket and space for commercial ventures like a restaurant and bookstore.
“The thing that’s so appealing and fascinating about the armory is that the more you look at it, the more different benefits you get out of the same space,” says Joan Byron, PICCED’s architectural director.
The estimated price tag: $100 million.

But there’s not yet a penny allocated to the project, and even small attempts to keep the building from collapsing are failing for lack of money. Funding to keep the roof from caving in has been stalled indefinitely by the Giuliani administration, which is withholding $30 million that the 87-year-old building needs for temporary repairs.

Time may be running out. Urgent repairs are being made, but the place will need a far more intensive renovation to remain open. Meanwhile the site’s vast potential taunts local parents like Colon.

“It’s right there where there are schools that need the space the most,” she says. “I believe it’s the perfect solution.”

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The armory, opened in 1917 for the 258th Coast Artillery Unit of the National Guard, is the largest of its kind in the world. There’s a reason why it looks like a castle. It was designed not only to drill troops for foreign wars but to also withstand attacks from domestic disturbances, although so far it hasn’t had to resist any insurrections.

The massive 120-foot-high drill shed was “the largest free-standing space in the western world from the time of the Pantheon in Rome to the Vehicular Assembly building at Cape Canaveral,” according to Major Robert von Hasseln, a National Guardsman and amateur historian who served at Kingsbridge in the 1980s.

Before the guard decamped and handed the facility over to the city, the armory was used for a variety of community events, including the occasional rodeo or track meet. Now the roof is slowly disintegrating, its planks falling onto the puddled floor. Rainwater has also devastated the armory’s remarkable underground labyrinth, which once included a parking garage, theater and bowling alley. Outside, coursing cracks and huge holes where there once were bricks undermine the building’s stability.

Yet there are still signs of viability. In the majestic block-long building that fronts the armory, the empty classrooms and offices are largely intact.

For six years, the school district has been pushing a couple of different proposals, albeit without seed money or official sponsorship. Another plan that would have turned the armory into an arena for amateur athletic events was championed by then-Assemblyman Oliver Koppell, but went nowhere fast. Even a state-funded feasibility study, with a $100,000 price tag, died at the hands of the Pataki administration.

In 1996, to make up for nixing Bronx Borough President Fernando Ferrer’s plan to build a Police Academy in the South Bronx, Mayor Rudolph Giuliani allocated $30 million to patch up the armory. The sum would have been enough to at least repair the roof and stabilize the building.

But like the previous attempts, even this modest effort was scuttled. Two years ago the administration shifted the money originally earmarked for the armory to the general pool of funding labeled “reconstruction of buildings citywide,” according to Denise Collins, a spokeswoman for the Department of Citywide Administrative Services. More ominously, that money has been pushed into the budget “out years,” and isn’t slated to be spent until 2002.

A spokeswoman for the mayor’s office wouldn’t explain why the money was moved but did say that “we don’t have any immediate plans for the armory right now.”

City Councilmember Adolfo Carrion, a rookie Democrat whose district includes the armory, has been meeting with Giuliani administration officials to try to broker a release of the money.

“We’re about to go through our budget exercise now, and this is going to be on the table again,” Carrion says. “We’re going to make sure that we get to the bottom line here, which is that we need to spend the money in this budget year before the building falls.”

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The Northwest Bronx coalition has set up meetings on the issue with federal officials, including Education Secretary Richard Riley. Visiting a PS 86 classroom in November, Riley promised those gathered that he’d write letters of support in their efforts to get grantmakers to fund a feasibility study. But his office is unable to give direct financial support.

The group recruited another ally in the New York/New Jersey High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area (HIDTA), a branch of the federal drug czar’s office. To give local kids a recreational option outside of drugs and gangs, HIDTA helped turn Manhattan’s East 168th Street Armory in Washington Heights into a center for youth athletics and after-school programs by contributing more than $400,000 seized from drug traffickers. Now the agency is in the process of proposing similar reinventions of other city armories.

But since this armory is in such bad shape, the feds may have to hold off until some initial renovation is completed. “We try to find unused armories that are in relatively good physical condition and then make the proposal to the city or the state,” says Chauncey Parker, HIDTA’s executive director.

If and when some real funding options begin to materialize, a vigorous debate will likely emerge over whether the armory should be controlled by public or private interests.

Carrion says private developers have approached him and the Bronx Overall Economic Development Corporation regarding the armory. But he’s mum on the details, and nothing concrete has been proposed. For his part, the councilman seems to believe that some element of commercial development may be necessary. “We’re going to need to put some money in there from the taxpayers, and there should be a significant return on that taxpayer dollar. But we have to be realistic [about the] long-term financial viability,” Carrion says.

ICCED’s Byron and others worry that commercial developers may get the upper hand, and emphasize that planners need to keep their eyes on the prize: addressing the community’s needs.

Isabel Colon, who plans to organize and promote the schools plan, agrees. “If I’m going to invest my tax dollars into anything, it would only make sense to invest in education,” she says. “Without educating our children, nothing is going to function in the future.”

Jordan Moss is editor of the Norwood News, a Bronx community newspaper.