“In the city’s hands for almost three decades, the vacant, landmarked Kingsbridge Armory—the world’s largest, built in 1917 for the National Guard—is still empty, despite a deal seemingly sealed in 2012.”
It’s a shock.
It shouldn’t be. The Bronx has plenty of experience getting screwed. But it’s shocking nonetheless.
In the city’s hands for almost three decades, the vacant, landmarked Kingsbridge Armory—the world’s largest, built in 1917 for the National Guard—is still empty, despite a deal seemingly sealed in 2012.
After being told by the state in 1993 that it would soon have control of the immense structure—over 500,000 square feet on Kingsbridge Road—it took the city 19 years to come up with a viable plan and get it approved by the City Council. But things were finally looking good. Despite exasperating fits and starts, there did seem to be a solid plan in 2012 to transform the Armory into nine ice hockey rinks and 50,000-square-feet of space for community nonprofits. Supporting a living wage and the Northwest Bronx Community and Clergy Coalition’s (NWBCCC) push for community use, the Kingsbridge National Ice Center (KNIC), an amalgam of companies with hockey legend Mark Messier at the forefront, was the victor. It came with a sense of relief and accomplishment all around.
But in the last decade, KNIC has done nothing with the mammoth edifice and most of its work has been in court, in battles with three of their partners and the city’s Economic Development Corporation (EDC), the overseer of everything involved. In 2016, four years after its deal with the city, KNIC was unable to acquire the necessary escrow from EDC to proceed with its $350 million project because it hadn’t gathered the needed capital, according to the development corporation. (KNIC has disputed this in court papers, accusing the EDC of instituting the escrow condition as a means to deliberately delay the project, and claiming they’d satisfied their financial obligations, in part through a promised multi-million dollar loan from the state).
The litigation continued until last fall, when a state court ruled against KNIC. In a statement, the EDC says the court concluded “that KNIC did not provide the necessary evidence of financing for the ice center project at Kingsbridge Armory by the required deadline in 2016. Therefore, the project will not be proceeding. We are disappointed that KNIC has been unable to realize the financing for the project, despite continued efforts since the 2016 deadline.”
Kevin Parker, of KNIC, declined to comment on the record about the specifics of the litigation, but told City Limits he’s now in discussions to bring the ice center project to New Jersey instead.
That leaves The Bronx with a still-empty Armory. It’s worth it to take a look further back at what else went wrong—and right—in order to help us do things differently, so the massive public site can be utilized relatively soon.
I wrote my first article about the Armory in November 1993 for the Norwood News (a Bronx nonprofit community newspaper I became editor of the following year) when the state, no longer needing it for the National Guard, handed it over to the city. There was a lot to report on. At the time, the superintendent of the desperately overcrowded school District 10 wanted the Armory to be home to new schools, while then-Assemblyman Oliver Koppell preferred it to be an amateur athletic facility and secured a $100,000 grant for the Bronx Overall Economic Development Corporation to study that possibility. But that agency never completed the report, so it returned the funding. In 1998, the NWBCCC began collaborating with the Pratt Institute, which resulted in architectural drawings that included three 800-seat schools inside the Armory, a sports complex, a bookstore, a community center and more. Their efforts after that were relentless.
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But in 1999, the Giuliani administration formed an Armory task force of nine agencies, from which local residents and Bronx elected officials were excluded. And the next year, the mayor released a plan for a retail/entertainment center with RD Management, but no schools were in it. RD eventually backed out due to the construction cost. In 2003, with Mayor Michael Bloomberg in office, a national developer, the Richman Group, picked up NWBCCC’s proposal and later that year the EDC announced it would release an RFP (request for proposals). But because of political infighting among Bronx Democrats, an RFP wasn’t released until late 2006. (Schools were eventually deemed a non-starter for the site, thanks to landmark rules that don’t allow exterior alterations.)
In 2009, Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced a deal with the Related Companies to fill the cavernous structure with a giant mall. But because Related wouldn’t promise to pay its workers a living wage—$10 an hour at the time—the NWBCCC organized with retail and construction unions to defeat the plan. The City Council ditched it 45 to 1.
Bloomberg and the EDC issued another RFP, and this time the agency’s pick of KNIC got the support it needed from the Kingsbridge Armory Redevelopment Alliance (KARA), a group of stakeholders led by the Coalition—because KNIC agreed to a Community Benefits Agreement (CBA). In addition to 50,000 square feet for community needs and a living wage for workers, KNIC agreed to open the ice rinks for the public at a cost of $1 million a year.
But it’s been a decade since Bloomberg and KNIC officials celebrated that deal at the Armory’s massive drill hall. There was pretty much no sign that Mayor Bill de Blasio was working to move things along, maybe because KNIC didn’t secure the loans it needed while keeping the EDC in court. I wish the news entities all over the city had been paying closer attention. (I know coverage matters, because the Norwood News’ relentless coverage of this drew attention in our northwest Bronx area and sometimes beyond. More low-income neighborhoods would benefit from more nonprofit newspapers, but that’s another story.)
“Unfortunately, the KNIC developer turned out to be a snake oil salesman who could not be upfront about his financial reality, even when given countless opportunities to do so,” said State Senator Gustavo Rivera (D), who represents the district, in an email to me. “The Bronx has lost many years of utilizing our monumental asset due to the apparent lack of honesty, transparency, and professionalism of a developer who over-promised and under-delivered.”
Back when the city announced the first RFP in 2006, the Norwood News stopped the ‘Armory Clock,’ which we had published in every issue since July 2005, marking the number of days that had passed since Gov. George Pataki’s visit to the Armory, where he pledged to work with local officials to make something happen. I think we all need to turn that clock on again, beginning at 5,963 days (I added it all up from Oct. 5, 2006, when we prematurely announced the clock’s retirement) and keep it going until the first day we Bronxites can walk in the front door, get some coffee, see a movie, get to work or experience whatever the heck we created there. That would be a true community benefit, unlike the formal one that went nowhere.
As Neil deMause reported in City Limits last month, many CBAs have been ineffective or unenforceable, sometimes by design. But if it weren’t for KNIC’s inability to secure funding, the CBA for the Armory would have likely been an unusually successful one. It was clearly designed to be enforceable by the community, not by elected officials, like those who failed to enforce the Yankee Stadium CBA.
READ MORE: What Ever Happened to CBAs? The Rise and Fall of ‘Community Benefits Agreements’ in NYC
NWBCCC knows this all too well. Ice rinks were not their vision for the Armory, but they actively supported it because they and KARA—not political leaders—negotiated the CBA. Having learned from many years organizing around the Armory, the group used its annual meeting last month to draw on that history, and brainstorm new visions of what the structure’s internal transformation can provide.
“What if we owned it?” said Sandra Lobo, the NWBCCC’s executive director, referring to, yes, the Armory. “The community [should be] at the lead of creating governance and accountability because they’re the ones that own the land under the building.” To determine how that could work, the Coalition has begun working with Urban Design Forum and the Van Alen Institute to come up with new ideas suitable to the neighborhoods surrounding the Armory.
Rivera already strongly supports NWBCCC and local stakeholders efforts to “ensure the new chapter of reviving this landmark [as] an emblem for community ownership, participatory ownership and mutual benefit.”
I remember that in 1995, Norwood resident Ronn Jordan, frustrated with the overcrowded school his kindergartner son attended, got involved with NWBCCC to pressure the city’s School Construction Authority to finish its delayed construction of P.S. 20 and to add even more new schools to its to-do list. Soon after, he became a leader in demanding schools at the Armory. Jordan still has big ideas, like the Armory being home to an NYPD Community Policing Training Center that partners with at-risk youth.
The fact that he’s still thinking about it is an accomplishment in and of itself.
Chris Jordan, that kindergartner, is now 30, and the dad of Ronn Jordan’s first grandchild, Charlotte, who is 8.
If that’s not a clear message that the leadership and process of envisioning and creating the Armory’s next existence needs to change drastically, I don’t know what is.
Jordan Moss is a Bronx resident and former editor of the Norwood News, where he covered the development of the Kingsbridge Armory for more than a decade.