Coalition, Developer Meet to Discuss Armory
By JORDAN MOSS
The company chosen by the city to develop the Kingsbridge Armory as a sports complex and shopping facility and the community organization that has its own underdog plan to use the landmark structure primarily to relieve the area's long-standing school overcrowding crisis, met last week to discuss their respective concepts.
According to the community residents present at the session, the meeting was cordial, and the developers seemed more interested in listening to their ideas than were city officials in previous meetings.
"I was very pleased with the way it went," said Ronn Jordan, a Norwood parent who has long been active in the Northwest Bronx Community and Clergy Coalition's efforts around the armory.
Jordan said Rick Birdoff, a principal in RD Management, and Gary McEntee of Basketball City, an RD subsidiary and another key player in the project, seemed genuinely interested in their ideas.
Though the dialogue seemed to be welcomed by both sides, the basic stumbling block in the debate until now -- whether the armory can accommodate up to three public schools -- appears to still be a significant obstacle.
"We're evaluating their presentation and their analysis and we look forward to a continuing dialogue," said Ethan Geto of Geto & Demilly, a public relations firm working on behalf of RD. "I must say at this juncture it would be overly optimistic to say that we, at the moment, see an easy compatibility between the economic development plan focused on retail and the school construction plan that the coalition envisions."
Geto said the retail space in RD's plan is central to their ability to develop the space and profit from the project, and that the coalition, on the other hand, is seeking basically to find a developer to take on their project for a fee.
"Essentially what the coalition is proposing is that a developer [for a fee] come in and build these schools, but not as a significant business opportunity," Geto said.
And he echoed the city's long-held rationale that significant retail participation was the most economically viable way to finance the restoration and development of the building, one of the largest facilities of its kind in the world.
But Jordan said Birdoff seemed intrigued by the coalition's proposal to use a federal funding stream to sharply reduce the cost of building schools at the armory. Qualified Zone Academy Bonds, or QZABs, slashes the cost of renovating old buildings for educational use in half by eliminating interest payments. New York state has $120 million available to it under the program but has failed to take advantage of it.
Jordan believes the school piece is key because, once in place, a guaranteed stream of operating funds will flow into the armory. At the same time, he says, a retail operation is not guaranteed success.
"You have to realize that it's not a definite thing that a shopping center is going to do anything for you," he said. "It could fail and then we're stuck with the same building."
Despite the difference of opinion, Councilman Adolfo Carrion, who helped broker the meeting, said it is positive that a phase of communication is under way.
"It's hard to say what the outcome will be," Carrion said. "But I think when you get people communicating and thinking about options they hadn't considered, you come up with pretty good ideas."
Carrion added that the state of the project, still a long way from being realized, is very fluid, especially because the city's land use review will probably not take place for several months since it must go through the City Planning Commission's lengthy certification process. And then the land use review, known as ULURP (Uniform Land Use Review Procedure), will take another six months.
"This project, as in most development, will not be exactly what has been proposed by either side," he said. "It's just the way things are."
For his part, Carrion is optimistic that public schools can be successfully incorporated into the project.
"I've always been of the mind that we can include a school alongside some other retail and entertainment uses," he said. "I don't think they're mutually exclusive."
Jordan said he could see some room for a possible compromise, where each side gave a little. Perhaps, Jordan suggested, RD would go for a six-screen movie theatre rather that the 12- screen one it now has in mind. And possibly his organization would settle for two schools rather than three.
"We have to sit down as a committee and decide what our bottom line is going to be," Jordan said, referring to the coalition's armory committee. "We really need at least two schools out of that. I can't see going under two schools."
Because there is no guarantee RD's plan will successfully navigate ULURP, the coalition is considering issuing an RFQ (request for qualifications) to developers who might have an interest in developing their proposal, which was put together with the help of architects at Pratt Institute.
But Jordan doesn't rule out an eventual meeting of the minds between the coalition and RD.
"Who knows?" he said. "Maybe there will be a compromise."
Carrion thinks both sides are moving in the right direction.
"It's one small step in a series of many small steps to get to a place where everybody wins," he said.
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