RENOVATING A CASTLE:
KINGSBRIDGE SHOWS HOW

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When developers submit plans for the city-owned Kingsbridge Armory to the city’s Economic Development Corporation (EDC) in December, they’ll be responding to an outline shaped by community organizing and people power. That’s because after 10 years of activism, Bronx residents got the Armory on the city’s to-do list and won themselves a say in how the complex is redeveloped.

The vast castle-like structure on the corner of Kingsbridge Road and Jerome Avenue has been a focus of local attention since the 1990s, when groups began meeting with public officials and holding forums, canvassing the streets and scrawling ideas on butcher paper and dry-erase boards. They wanted the Armory to serve neighborhood needs with schools and other amenities rather than simply attracting graffiti and litter, and slowly but surely they pushed the building’s reuse onto the city’s agenda.

The Request for Proposals released Sept. 26 gives preference to projects that provide retail jobs paying at least $10 an hour, plus benefits. The RFP requires a strong local-hiring plan for construction jobs and seeks minimal car traffic, environmentally sustainable design and space in the armory for community groups.

“This is a victory because [the EDC] has never had living wage language in an RFP before,” said Desiree Pilgrim-Hunter, a Kingsbridge Armory Redevelopment Alliance member who served on the city-led taskforce that drafted the RFP. “It’s economically viable. Lots of money is going to be made, but not at the expense of the community. The community has to be at the forefront of what [developers] do.”

Now the city plans to make the castle a social and shopping destination for the west Bronx with stores, an inviting park-like perimeter, a movie theater or cultural venue and reduced-rent space for community organizations. The RFP specifically discourages suburban-style big-box stores and stresses that 73 percent of neighborhood residents don’t drive.

“We wanted to make sure that the people who would really be affected have a voice at the table,” said Ronn Jordan, president of the Northwest Bronx Community and Clergy Coalition (NWBCCC) and a member of the RFP taskforce.

City government was ready to listen to grassroots concerns, Jordan believes, because it has encountered tenacious resistance to other projects.

“This administration has been obstructed and obstructed, with Yankee Stadium, with Gateway [Center] at the Bronx Terminal Market. I think they thought, ‘how come every time we stick a shovel in the ground it turns up a crowd of people?’ Well, because they weren’t listening to the community. Now they are,” Jordan said.

The Armory is a 575,000 square-foot complex, containing the area of four football fields. Built nearly a century ago to house the National Guard, its exterior is protected as a city landmark, but the inside is fair game for remodeling. With fanciful architecture including Romanesque arches, rounded turrets and decorative terra cotta, it looks like a huge red brick fortress hulking beside the Kingsbridge Road subway station of the elevated 4 train. The city has owned the site, which is vacant but for a small area occupied by the National Guard, since 1994.

A year ago, the NWBCCC joined the national Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union, which represents 100,000 workers nationwide and 40,000 in New York City, to sponsor the Kingsbridge Armory Redevelopment Alliance (KARA). This coalition of neighborhood groups, churches and elected officials advocated an Armory plan that would help local residents and merchants. Members of KARA sat on the city-sponsored taskforce that shaped the city’s Request for Proposals.

That was a unique position for local advocates because community concerns are usually not heard until projects enter the public approvals process at Community Boards, the city’s Uniform Land Use Review Procedure (ULURP) and City Council. “By the time it gets to ULURP, all the things are in place and it’s like trying to stop a boulder rolling downhill,” Jordan said.

By that point, the parameters of the project are already defined and community organizations that oppose them are often viewed as obstructionists. They can be effective, but their action is essentially negative, reacting to an agenda set elsewhere. With the Armory plans, KARA made itself part of the discussion from the beginning.

“This shows that the long-term planning and grassroots organizing the NWBCCC engaged in allowed it to think big and proactively. They created a process where the community and city write the rules, not the developer,” said Brad Lander, director of the Pratt Center for Community Development. “This is exactly how the city should do planning for large-scale development.”

The Economic Development Corporation says the Armory process was nothing new, however: NYCEDC always solicits community involvement and holds a public process. “In the Bloomberg administration when we do major projects, we reach out and involve all stakeholders,” said EDC spokesperson Janel Patterson. She pointed to taskforces currently considering development plans in downtown Flushing and Willets Point, both in Queens, as evidence.

But some critics consider EDC policy plagued by top-down planning, leaving community-based organizations, typically appointed to advisory panels with little real power, scrambling for crumbs from a developer’s feast.

The Kingsbridge process evolved over the past decade. When it began the Armory campaign, the NWBCCC demanded the space be used for four schools, to ease epic overcrowding. After all, it’s a young neighborhood, with an average age of 29, and nearly one-fifth of residents are school-aged children. A bustling working-class and poor area of six-story apartment buildings with pockets of one- and two-family houses, it’s home to CUNY’s leafy Lehman College and several high schools. Largely Hispanic, with growing West African, Korean and Eastern European populations, the median income in the half-mile surrounding the armory is $27,000.

While parents and activists were dreaming of schools, then-Mayor Rudy Giuliani announced a no-bid contract to turn the Armory into a mall and Chelsea Piers-style sports complex. The neighbors hated the idea.

“We created enough political will around it that it couldn’t happen,” said Jordan, who first entered the fray as a father and education activist.

After difficult soul-searching and consultation with developers, the NWBCCC admitted the facility would need to generate income. The School Construction Authority now plans to build two schools on the site, but the Armory building itself will include retail, entertainment and community space.

In March, KARA developed a seven-point plan articulating what the community wanted to see in its neighborhood, from retail jobs that would not add to the ranks of the working poor, to space for cultural programs and social services, to businesses that would not compete with the existing commercial district. Many of those priorities made it into the RFP, said Jeff Eichler, a local organizing coordinator with the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union.

“How it happened, why it happened, is because we created a very powerful and integrated coalition. It’s the best coalition I’ve ever been involved with, and I’ve been in the labor movement for 30 years,” Eichler said.

In May, Deputy Mayor for Economic Development Daniel L. Doctoroff toured the Armory with KARA and announced the formulation of a taskforce to influence the RFP. “When Doctoroff toured the Armory we were there, KARA was there, and he realized this was going to be a different process than usual,” Eichler said. “He had to respond to the reality on the ground.”

The taskforce board included Bronx Borough President Adolfo Carrion, Jr., EDC members, Bronx Community Board 7 representatives, area City Councilmembers, state legislators and U.S. Rep Jose Serrano (D-Bronx).

At a victory rally inside the Armory on Sept. 30, KARA members celebrated. And they girded for the next battle.

“This is really only the beginning,” Pilgrim-Hunter said. City Councilmember G. Oliver Koppell told the rally attendees he was in for the next round. “I promise that the City Council will not approve the zoning change for this project if the developer does not incorporate the vision the community has laid out through KARA,” he said.

– Eileen Markey