Vol. 16, No. 5    Feb. 27 - March 12, 2003



     
 

Veteran Developer Adds Weight to Coalition's Armory Proposal

By HEATHER HADDON

A proposal conceived of by the Northwest Bronx Community and Clergy Coalition and the Pratt Institute Center for Community and Environmental Development has been picked up by a national real estate company, which is working to give the proposal a competitive edge.

In August, the Coalition, a local grassroots group with 10 neighborhood affiliates, asked The Richman Group, a 25-year-old real estate company, to provide feedback on the group's proposal. In addition to agreeing that the proposal is financially feasible, the firm thought it was interesting enough to pursue themselves. "We see [the armory] as an extraordinary resource for community use, both for educational and retail purposes," said Bill Traylor, Richman's president, who is leaving at the end of this month to work for the city. 

A mix of schools, shops and other community and retail space is just what the Coalition has been pushing for for several years. (The massive city landmark, built in 1917, was abandoned by the National Guard in 1993.) But their plan was opposed by the Giuliani administration which was dead set on using the space for commercial and recreational purposes only. 

Though meeting opposition in the past, the Coalition is optimistic that their plan is 
considerably strengthened by the work of an outside developer. "If [The Richman Group] develops the plan, it makes our job a lot easier," said Ronn Jordan, a longtime member of the Coalition's armory committee. 

The Richman Group is not new to the Bronx. In December, the company broke ground in Kingsbridge on an $80 million office and retail center, including a Target store. It's the largest development in the borough in 10 years. Richman is currently working to further develop the Bronx Museum of the Arts site on the Grand Concourse. 

"Our work ranges from retail centers to mixed use residential to [former] President 
Clinton's office in Harlem," said Navid Maqami, director of Richman's New York office. 

Maqami emphasized the firm's commitment to incorporating community needs into their designs. "There's a difference between what an architect would build in an urban area versus a cornfield," he said. "It's important for us to be responsive to communities. . . to be sensitive to the physical and social contexts."

So far the group has practiced what they preach, said (PICCED) architectural director Joan Byron, who put the coalition's initial plans for the armory into blueprint form. "We listened to [The Richman Group], which develops shopping centers, talk about what their constituents want," Byron said. "And we got to say what our constituents, school kids, want."

Both Richman and Coalition members said that their needs are addressed in the proposal The Richman Group drafted. The 475,000-square-foot building would house both anchor and small retail stores, an athletic complex, underground parking and a multiplex cinema. 

From three to five schools-- for a total of some 2,000 seats-- would be created with the remaining space. Coalition members are leaning toward schools for the upper grades. "It  could be another five years before this gets off the ground-- in which time another generation of kids will have grown up-- which is why we are looking at high schools," said Myra Goggins, a former Coalition president. 

Byron said the schools would have separate entrances and identities in the plan. "Our goal is to create separate small institutions, sharing a great facility that would be identifiable from the outside," Byron said. 

The exact percentage of space divided between retail and schools is still flexible, according to Traylor. "This is all open to ongoing discussions with community members and other potential users of the space, including the Department of Education," said Traylor. 

The Department of Education (DOE) is considering the proposal according to the Coalition but budget constraints will certainly be a factor. "With the budget crisis, it's going to be an uphill battle," Jordan acknowledged.

DOE's approval is critical, Goggins believes. "The key thing is getting total DOE approval of the plan," she said. "We're counting on them paying rent. . . because we don't just want to develop [the armory] as a shopping mall."

The previous administration insisted including schools would not be financially viable. But with a for-profit developer behind the idea, Byron is confident it will become clear that schools add to the project's feasibility. "Teachers are natural customers," she said. "High school students are also. This is a commercial proposition. Richman is not assuming special financing."

The revenue question will undoubtedly be scrutinized by the city's Economic Development Corporation (EDC), the agency charged with selecting the site's developer. Two weeks ago, EDC and DOE met to discuss the Richman plan after encouragement from Deputy Mayor Daniel Doctoroff's office, according to Jennifer Falk, a spokeswoman for Doctoroff. 

Other plans, including the Giuliani proposal and Councilman Oliver Koppell's concept of using the armory for the 2012 Olympic games, are still on the table, according to Falk. "The deputy mayor definitely thinks the armory is an important project, and he is hoping to find an appropriate plan," she said.

Regardless, the Coalition is optimistic about their new partner and they hope to meet with EDC and DOE officials in the coming months-- especially as rehabilitation work on the armory's exterior nears completion. 

"Once the outside work concludes, we're going to strike while the iron's hot," Jordan said.

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