Clear Consensus Emerges at Armory Hearing
By MIRANDA KAPLAN
Last week's City Council hearing on the Kingsbridge Armory at Lehman College finally brought together a variety of city officials and community residents to discuss the fate of the landmark facility. It was the first hearing since the National Guard vacated the mammoth structure more than a decade ago.
Council Member James Sanders, Jr., chairman of the Economic Development Committee and one of the seven city lawmakers present, called it a "historic" event for the Bronx. "We have brought government to the people," he said, as the hearing ended and applause erupted.
In the decade after its reversion to the city, the armory, a 500,000-square-foot landmark, has remained unused. For nearly as long, it has been mired in political inertia.
But Friday's hearing appeared promising as it was the first meeting to bring the city's Economic Development Corporation (EDC), which will oversee the redevelopment project, residents and elected officials together in the same room. The meeting stood in sharp contrast to a meeting hosted by Bronx Borough President Adolfo Carrión on Nov. 19 of last year, when the EDC and two local Council members were last-minute no- shows. The absences revealed tensions between Carrión and Assemblyman Jose Rivera, who wanted his political protége, Council Member Maria Baez, to have the opportunity to bring a Council hearing on the armory to the borough. But Carrión, who was in Israel last week, recently softened his position against additional hearings.
About 150 people, including local youth and parents, brought an array of viewpoints to the hearing. But overwhelmingly, the focus of most was education. Almost all those who testified supported the creation of new schools at the armory to relieve severe overcrowding in area schools.
The Northwest Bronx Community and Clergy Coalition (NWBCCC), a local grassroots group that has long favored building schools at the armory, made a slide presentation showing some of the first concrete images of what schools and a sports center in the armory might look like. The Coalition has teamed up with a developer to refine its proposals.
The Council members who organized the hearing made it clear that they, too, favored school development and rejected the Giuliani administration's previous plans to convert the space into a giant shopping mall and athletic facility.
Council Member Joel Rivera said the needs of local youth were paramount. "It's not our kids that are failing the governments. It's not our kids that are failing us. It's us, and our governments, that are failing our kids." City Council Speaker Gifford Miller stressed the danger of letting precious space fall victim to decay or unwise development, while 80 percent of high school students in the area attend overcrowded schools.
While schools were at the top of the agenda, there was also agreement that recreational facilities, community space and locally owned shops also deserved a home in the renovated armory. "The answer to our prayers is in the Kingsbridge Armory," said Maria Fernandez, a local youth leader with the Coalition-affiliated group Sistas and Brothas United. "Everything we have worked so hard to accomplish is in reaching distance: schools, recreational space, athletics department and a nearby movie theater. We can finally say the youth are off the streets."
An EDC presentation outlined the armory's architectural pluses and minuses and gave a rough timeline of the steps toward redevelopment. However, EDC officials could not give a definite point at which an RFP (request for proposals) would be issued by the city, thus opening the door to bids from developers.
Some questioned the timeline's slow pace, saying that the project had already been delayed much too long. "It is time to move this vision forward," said Ronn Jordan, a lifelong Bronx resident and member of the Coalition.
Carrión expressed agreement in a prepared statement. "The armory represents an opportunity to create sorely needed jobs and community amenities," he said. "So it is imperative that planning proceeds without delay."
The EDC cited "ongoing" consultations with the community and the military as the only remaining barriers to the RFP. Michael Friess, a Naval representative present at the hearing, noted that the military always needs space for training grounds and hinted that a chunk of the armory might be ideal.
Another obstacle, however, might lie in a letter from the Department of Education (DOE) read at the hearing. The letter restated the DOE's opposition to the building of schools in the armory, citing a shortage of natural light due to the structure's few windows.
But a representative from the Pratt Institute Center for Community and Environmental Development (PICCED), which has worked extensively with the NWBCCC on the armory project, countered by saying that schools could still be built adjacent to the building, or only partially within it.
Overall, community members were jubilant that everyone appeared to be on the same page. Many rewarded the Council members with a standing ovation at the hearing's close.
Jordan said he felt "very good" about the proceedings. "We're all on the same page, and now it's clear to the EDC and everybody else that this is what we need to do."
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