An Old Armory at the Crossroads

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The Buildings of Brooklyn: Bedford Union Armory in Crown Heights

The Bedford Union Armory in Crown Heights

The Bedford Union Armory in Crown Heights (Diego Courchay/The Brooklyn Ink)

Fortress-like, occupying vast amounts of real estate, and once the homes of militias to “suppress insurrections and repel invasions,” it comes as no surprise that armories around New York have needed to reinvent themselves over time. Some of them, such as the Park Avenue Armory in Manhattan, have, in tune with their neighborhoods, became fashionable cultural centers. Others, such as the Atlantic Armory in north Crown Heights, on 1322 Bedford Avenue, reflect the challenges of their surroundings by serving as homeless shelters.

But in southern Crown Heights, the Bedford Union Armory at 1579 Bedford Avenue awaits its future, a building at a crossroads, embodying its rapidly gentrifying neighborhood. The work of architects Picher and Tachau, the Bedford Union Armory is in the midst of a divisive redevelopment plan, one that proponents argue will turn it into a catalyst for the area, but which critics say will not benefit locals, and only further spur the steep rise in rents that is driving out long time neighborhood residents.

The Bedford Union Armory—erected between 1903 and 1907—has lacked a definite purpose in recent years. The building, once the home of the Troop C cavalry unit of the National Guard, has hosted events for both the Caribbean and Jewish communities; a concert of the Mexican norteño-band, “Los Tigres del Norte”; sets built for a Nicolas Cage movie; and, most recently, a picket line, among other things. But you wouldn’t see or hear many signs of life if you were to walk by it on any given weekday afternoon.

The entrance to the Bedford Union Armory

The entrance to the Bedford Union Armory (Diego Courchay/The Brooklyn Ink)

The building occupies most of the block between Union St., President St., and their corners with Bedford Avenue. Its small entrance seems disproportionate to its castellated, brick mass, topped by the huge dome roof of the drill hall that the National Guard used until 2011. Imposing and martial, it creates a block-long hush in the normal succession of homes and businesses.

The walk along its flank on President Street offers a series of windows protected by corrugated iron bars and grillage, ending in the parking lot. On the Armory’s opposite flank, starting on the corner of Union and Rogers, a sense of neglect comes more sharply into focus. Unlike the clean sidewalks in front of the houses on the right, the Armory’s sidewalk across the street crunches underfoot with the sound of dry leaves and broken glass. There are no neighbors on this side, no one to clean the Wendy’s wrappings, empty Newport packages, and Corona bottles.

The Armory’s potential to change its surroundings helps to explain the dispute over its future. The stage was first set for its renewal following the departure of the National Guard in 2011, and accelerated when the Armory was turned over to the city in 2013. The year before, New York University’s Capstone Team, carrying out a study commissioned by former Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz, held an open house at the Armory as part of the community engagement to collect visions for the building’s future. It was the start of a conversation on what the Armory should become, and, for many neighbors, the first time they had seen the inside of the building.

In 2013, New York City Economic Development Corporation (NYCEDC) announced a request for proposals (RFP) to “reactivate” the Bedford Union Armory, opening the bidding process among developers to present their plans. The RFP put the question of the neighborhood’s use for the armory at the heart of the discussion. The idea, as the RFP put it, was “to transform the vacant Bedford Union Armory in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn into a facility that will anchor the neighborhood and become a valuable amenity for local residents, while also preserving the historical character of the Armory.”

Among their criteria for selection, the Economic Development Corporation stated these three: “Respondents were expected to present a project that was financially feasible,” as well as to “Ensure a substantial portion of its uses are community-serving,” and “Preserve the character of the facility and respect the surrounding neighborhood context.”

In 2013, the winning bid was for a mixed-use development featuring a recreational facility, community event space, commercial space, 56 condominiums, and 330 housing units, half of them to be set aside as affordable. A pair of for-profit developers, BFC Partners and Slate Property Group, headed the project. They, in turn, enlisted the participation of the Carmelo Anthony Foundation and CAMBA, a non-profit, to tend to the recreational facility and community spaces included in the project.

To its proponents, the project seemed to tick all the boxes. “After listening to the concerns of the community, I feel that we will be getting all that we asked for,” Council Member Laurie A. Cumbo said at the official announcement of the project in December 2015. Community spaces and facilities in the design plan included including sports facilities and a pool.

Despite the support from local officials, the Bedford Union Armory project drew immediate scrutiny in a neighborhood at the forefront of gentrification. The backlash from parts of the community was swift. On August 10, a protest was held in front of the Armory, with members of the Crown Heights Tenant Union and New York Communities for Change present. At the heart of the protest was the fear that locals always wind up on the losing side of housing and rising costs, that they had seen the same story unfold all too many times.

“It’s been demonstrated that these for-profit developers it’s not in their interest to build low income housing for low-income New Yorkers,” Communities for Change member Renata Pumarol told The Brooklyn Ink. Pumarol believes that, in the case of for-profit developers, their concept of what constitutes affordable housing does not coincide with that of local residents.

The area, according to the ongoing StreetEasy.com report on rent, has seen prices rise from $1,657 in November 2010 to $2,554 by August 2016. Analysis of the report by StreeEasy’s Jhee Kim published on August 29th furthers stresses that East Brooklyn (in which Crown Heights is included) “continues to dominate price growth in the borough, remaining the only submarket across Manhattan and Brooklyn to experience double-digit annual price growth at 10.7 percent.”

“The community is very skeptical, and they have reasons to be,” Pumarol said. “They were not included and the process was not transparent. The community is skeptical about the recreation facility that is not for them.”

The discontent was directed at one of the developers in particular. Organizations heading the protest against the redevelopment said they were concerned that Slate Property Group was part of the project, because of that company’s involvement in a controversial Lower East Side project called Rivington House, in which a lifting of deed restriction—requiring that the five-story building remain a non-profit nursing home—led the building to be sold for residential purposes. The scandal recently forced mayor Bill de Blasio to admit in a statement that “Rivington House’s conversion to luxury housing never should have happened,” adding, “This community was the victim of a broken process, City error, and unscrupulous developers looking to make a buck.”

Pressure grew, and Slate withdrew from the Armory project on August 24. Then, on September 14, The Carmelo Anthony foundation dropped its support, following a campaign asking the basketball star not to back gentrification. The presence of the Brooklyn-born, Knicks player had been perceived by some as a validation for the project, and his departure came as a blow.

In light of these upheavals, BFC Partners has publicly indicated that it will go ahead with the redevelopment alone. The next stage for the project is its application to the Uniform Land Use Review Procedure, allowing the change in land use necessary to carry out the development. The NYC Department of City Planning defines the Review Procedure as “a standardized procedure whereby applications affecting the land use of the city would be publicly reviewed.” The stated aim for the Bedford Union Armory is to complete the Review Procedure certification by the first quarter of 2017. Once this has been achieved, the recreation and community facilities are set to be opened of 2019, and residential building by the 4th quarter of 2020.

Neither the City’s Housing and Economic Development nor Slate Property Group responded to requests for comment.

The Bedford Union Armory occupies a lot of space in Crown Heights. It also occupies a portion of a larger debate about the use of city-owned property. Some local residents, however, don’t seem to know a lot about its future.

A man walks along the Armory on Union Street

A man walks along the Armory on Union Street (Diego Courchay/The Brooklyn Ink)

Standing on a stoop on President St, looking at the Armory, a middle-aged man sporting a cap and glasses, who asked not to be named, said he’s heard the building will become “some recreational space and housing,” but says he knows nothing more. On the corner at Rogers Avenue, in a café with a view of the corner of the armory, a young woman says: “No one’s come here and talked about it. I heard there were three companies and one got booted out due to shady dealings.” She heard it on the news, she said, and prefers not to be named.

Another neighbor, Brendan, will only share his first name as he walks on the sidewalk next to W.E.B. Dubois Academic High School, on Union Street. He has rastas, a soft voice, and clear opinions on gentrification. He worries about all the bars popping up in the neighborhood, and if it’s legal for so many of them to open close to school areas. He has seen picket lines and cameras in front of the Armory, but beyond that he says he hasn’t heard much, and no one has talked to the neighbors. To him, it feels as if others run the show and no one tells the local the locals anything. “Who are we?” he asks, smiling.

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