Vol. 13, No. 2 Jan. 27 - Feb. 9, 2000


Mayor's Armory Plan Faulted for Omitting Schools


Five years after the National Guard left the Kingsbridge Armory and six years after the first proposal to build schools at the armory was floated by Community School District 10, Mayor Giuliani unveiled a plan to renovate the facility and develop it into a massive retail and entertainment center.

The one element not in the redevelopment plan -- public schools -- had local parents crying foul.

"The mayor is giving away a prime piece of real estate," said Ronn Jordan, one of many area parents who worked with the Northwest Bronx Community and Clergy Coalition and Pratt Institute to draft a redevelopment proposal that makes room for three schools, in addition to other community and commercial uses. "We've scoured the northwest Bronx and we can't really find legitimate space for schools."

Councilman Adolfo Carrion shares Jordan's concerns about the need for school space. "We need to have a meaningful discussion of how we're going to create additional educational space either in the armory or in the neighborhood," said Carrion, whose district includes the armory. "We certainly can't celebrate until this community gets what it needs."

Carrion's colleague, Councilman Jose Rivera, who represents the neighboring Council district, agreed. "If we cannot do it [at the armory], then we need to do it nearby," Rivera said. Carrion and Rivera met with the mayor prior to the announcement and raised the schools issue.

"He recognized that it was a serious need and that we need to address it," Carrion said. "The question is, how do we do this? Do we do it in the armory?"

If schools don't end up being a part of the armory equation, Carrion wants at least two schools for his community as a tradeoff. "That should be the final negotiating position -- that we should not move forward until we identify specific sites and plans to create additional school space," Carrion said.

The mayor's plan, revealed at the end of his State of the City speech and detailed in a separate press conference on Jan. 20, calls for "entertainment space anchored by a multiplex movie theater," a "retail space to accommodate major retail outlets," "recreational spaces featuring such amenities as basketball courts, soccer fields, batting cages, an elevated jogging track and state-of-the-art climbing wall," and "areas for community facilities, a park and pedestrian ways."

The city has given RD Management, a developer of shopping malls, the lead role in developing the facility without issuing a Request for Proposals (RFP), a common procedure many expected would be followed in this case.

Janel Patterson, a spokeswoman for the city's Economic Development Corporation, said the city entered into what is known as a "sole-source" contract with RD Management because "of their unique background. We can do a sole-source in a number of [situations], and one of those is if it's for the public benefit and if the developer had some unique capabilities."

Those unique capabilities, Patterson said, stem from the company's history of large-scale commercial developments and its experience renovating an old deteriorating Washington, DC Naval building, of a similar vintage to the Kingsbridge Armory, into an office complex.

RD is partnering with Basketball City, a company which runs multi-sport recreational facilities on the west side of Manhattan and in Boston, on this project. RD is "the major investor" in Basketball City, according to Gary McEntee, Basketball City's CEO, who will also serve as RD Management's point man on the armory project.

In addition to renting out volleyball and basketball courts, Basketball City sponsors Jump Start, a nonprofit that "provides court space for underprivileged kids and high schools that don't have gym space." A similar program will take root at the armory, according to a press release from the mayor's office.

McEntee, who previously worked for a firm specializing in environmental remediation said the Naval building project was similar in terms of the decay and environmental hazards it presented. "When I saw the armory I was one of the people that was not afraid of the armory," McEntee said, describing RD's experience with dealing with asbestos abatement and other structural challenges. 

Before RD gets another shot at retrofitting another military building, though, a number of hurdles must be cleared. First, it must secure enough major retail tenants to make the project viable. The company reportedly has 120 days from Jan. 19, 2000 to secure prospective tenants for the project.

Then, the whole development package must navigate the city's land-use review process, known as ULURP (Uniform Land Use Review Procedure). Community Board 7 (and possibly Community Board 8 which borders the facility), Borough President Fernando Ferrer and the City Council will all have a say in whether the project becomes reality. And so far, no one is fully on board. Ferrer issued a statement after the mayor's announcement citing concerns about the lack of educational facilities and worries that local merchants "would be adversely affected by city-sponsored competition," particularly by the possible inclusion of so-called big-box stores like Home Depot.

If the sentiments of local residents and officials who have already weighed in on the subject are any gauge, it will be tough going.

"You can't just plop down things where you want them," said Karen Argenti, a Kingsbridge Heights resident and veteran of the successful fight to keep a filtration plant out of Jerome Park Reservoir. "That's what zoning is about. I think [the armory] is not zoned for a place that would be servicing people on a daily basis that are not from the local community."

Other activists aren't ready to give up on their plans to transform the armory into a space with many more public uses than the mayor has in mind. Jordan said the coalition has been exploring with the Board of Education the possibility of using federal funds known as Qualified Zone Academy Bonds (known as Q-ZAB). Q-ZAB were specifically appropriated to fix up old buildings for educational use and there's $120 million available to New York City, according to Jordan.

Joan Byron, the Pratt Institute architect that worked with the coalition to develop its proposal, said the mayor's plan hasn't scared them off. "We're kind of pressing on because we think, when all is said and done, that on the merits there's just a lot of good planning sense in putting schools and community uses in that building," Byron said.

At the very least, it appears that the final battle waged over the Kingsbridge Armory will hinge on the construction of public schools.

"There are a lot of pluses to [the mayor's plan]," Carrion said, referring to the potential creation of more than a 1,000 jobs. "The big gaping hole is, how do we address overcrowding in the schools? We must do that."

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