Made a city landmark in 1974, the Armory has remained vacant since 2000.

Photo by: Taleen Dersdepanian

Made a city landmark in 1974, the Armory has remained vacant since 2000.

Two years after a City Hall plan to redevelop it collapsed over an argument about wage requirements, what is considered to be the world’s largest armory sits vacant in the Kingsbridge area of the Bronx. A potential tenant has proposed a new use for the site. But it’s unclear whether the plan has political support or promises significant economic impact.

The Kingsbridge armory was built between 1912 and 1917 and housed the National Guard’s Eight Coastal Artillery Regiment. Since then it has been a homeless shelter and hosted dog shows, boxing matches, film production, even a concert by the Beach Boys. It was made a city landmark in 1974 and has remained vacant since 2000.

In 2009 Mayor Bloomberg backed an initiative to put the armory to use as a mall that would attract customers from the surrounding community as well as the rest of the Bronx and city.

Local activists, community groups and labor unions formed the Kingsbridge Armory Redevelopment Alliance (KARA) to push for a community benefits agreement that would hold the mall’s developer to a set of promises. Such an agreement would have required living wages for all employees.

When the mayor balked at the wage requirements, the project was voted down in December 2010 by the City Council.

Search for a ‘Plan B’

In the wake of that vote, Bronx Borough President Rubin Diaz Jr., who led the push to kill the mall plan over the wage issue, launched the Kingsbridge Armory Task Force to look at alternative prospects for the armory.

Over a year’s time, the Task Force hosted eleven monthly meeting to discuss requirements and criteria for proposals, which included proposals by the New York Arena Management Corporation, the YMCA and the World Changers Church International lead by TV minister Creflo Dollar, whose pitch included a mega church, child care programs, career counseling and a food and clothing bank. There was also a proposal to turn the armory into a velodrome, a racetrack for bikes.

For months there wasn’t any news about possible plans for the space but recently, the National Cycling Association began promoting their plans to build the Olympic-size 250-meter velodrome and BMX park in the vacant space. The NCA wants to run a demonstration project, which will cost about $700,000, for eight weeks next spring. This will include a professional six-day bicycle race, with the possibility of permanent tenancy to follow.

Some see promise in bike plan

Several armories in New York City already serve as sports/recreation facilities. The Fort Washington Armory in Washington heights is a track-and-field center, and the Park Slope Armory is utilized by several schools in the community who lack gymnasium space for students. Most of the city armories, according to the armory report, run on public private partnerships. This hints at the possible success of a velodrome at the Kingsbridge armory.

Bringing cycling to the Bronx isn’t a new idea. While largely forgotten, NYC—and specifically the Bronx—have a strong history of cycling. In the 1920’s a velodrome was located on 225th Street before it was destroyed by a fire. Successful six-day races in NY were held at Madison Square Garden and the Kingsbridge Armory in the 1930’s.

According to NCA President Jack Simes the velodrome spring demo will convey how successful the velodrome will be. Using the six-day bike race as the main event will help with the funding needed to turn the armory into a track and build grandstands. The second source of funding would be ticket sales, which will also help fund several youth programs that he plans to offer.

Since cycling is a national sport, the NCA claims it will draw attention nationwide as well as internationally, bringing not only fans of the sport, but also participants—just like a marathon. This will mean business for surrounding community as spectators spend on hotels, meals, transportation and shopping. The youth programs and training space will bring young athletes and coaches. Jobs, a big debate in the 2009 armory plan, will be created in construction, security, youth training, marketing and promotion; all jobs, Simes notes, that won’t compete with the surrounding businesses.

“With the demo we want to show what this can be and what it means to the Bronx, to NYC,” stated Simes. “With the demo period the community actually has something real to understand and consider beyond a bunch of ambitious ideas on paper.”

The Kissena Cycling club, which uses the Kissena outdoor velodrome daily, support the NCA’s plans.

“We are excited for more racing opportunities and the idea of an indoor velodrome that can open up more cold weather racing and training opportunities already lacking in the city,” said Kissena Cycling Clun President Dan Reiners. “Our hope is that it will also be a location that does outreach for youth similar to the Star Track program at the Kissena Velodrome to help fight the youth obesity epidemic and introduce young people to cycling.”

Questions about viability

But some question how successful the velodrome will be, and wonder how much participation the community will have in the spring plan and final outcome for the site.

“I didn’t know about the velodrome plans,” said Maritza Rodriguez, a Kingsbridge resident of eight years. “I haven’t actually heard anything about the place since the mall and I was actually for that. I would like to have more shopping options other than Fordham road. This velodrome won’t interest most of the community and doesn’t seem to be something we would pay for.”

Jonathan Bowles, director of the Center for an Urban Future, a public policy organization that deals with issues facing low-income and working-class neighborhoods in the five boroughs, said the idea was original, but therefore untested.

“I’m glad to see out of the box ideas for the space,” said Bowles. “But I’m not sure how much of a job intensive project this will be and jobs would be beneficial for the borough at the moment.”

Diaz’s office has been quiet about the velodrome plans.

“I am pleased that the operator of the velodrome proposal has shown so much interest in this site, as have others, and I thank them for expressing their interest to the community,” said the borough president in a statement. “My office is ready to work together with the Bloomberg Administration to develop and issue a new RFP for the Kingsbridge Armory, and I hope that they will join us in working for the positive redevelopment of this historic structure.”

The New York City Economic Development Corporation, which is in charge of the armory and all future plans for it, released a statement about what they expect from any potential proposals.

“We’ll listen to all feasible proposals that include private sector investment, the responsible use of city resources and the creation of new jobs,” stated Kyle Sklerov, Senior Associate of Public Affairs at NYCEDC.

At least some in the neighborhood back the proposal.

“This would be beneficial to an area like the Bronx where asthma and obesity among our youth is high,” said Barbara Stronczer, a member of Community Board Seven and President of the Bedford Mosholu Community Association. “It would be a space to allow them to be active,” she said referring to plans to include youth programs, as well as a skate park.