Vol. 11, No. 12

June 11 - 24, 1998


New Mission for Armory?
Recent Developments Give Community Hope

By Jordan Moss

The possibility of restored city funding, the involvement of an influential federal agency, and the activism of a grassroots community organization may mean that long-stalled proposals for stabilizing and transforming the Kingsbridge Armory may soon be back on the drawing board.

Four years have passed since the city took over the 575,000-square-foot structure from the National Guard and it has lain virtually empty that whole time - useful only as an impressive perch for pigeons and as an inviting canvas for graffiti vandals. Large cracks mar its facade and refuse litters its grounds. Since 1993, occasional proposals have surfaced, most notably from two successive Community School District 10 superintendents who, beleaguered by the overcrowding crisis, suggested the space be used for a complex of public schools and community programs. Former Assemblyman Oliver Koppell had other ideas, briefly pushing a plan to use the armory as an arena for amateur sporting events before he left local politics to become the state attorney general.

Lacking the significant political backing either concept would need to get the ball rolling, both went nowhere fast. A state-funded study that may have helped to galvanize support around a particular proposal was abandoned when Governor George S. Pataki rescinded the grant soon after taking office.

Despite the false starts, new developments have local activists hopeful that the time for converting the armory from neighborhood eyesore to community resource may be at hand.

This year, the New York/New Jersey High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area (HIDTA) - the regional branch of the President's Office of National Drug Control Policy - took $400,000 confiscated from international drug dealers and poured it into the 168th Street Armory in Washington Heights. The money was used to renovate the space, long used as a homeless shelter and to leverage additional support from the city and the participation of youth service providers like the Police Athletic League and Stanley Kaplan, the test preparation service, which agreed to provide free SAT classes.

Mainly an enforcement agency, HIDTA marked is first forays into demand reduction - creating positive recreational and educational activities for youth - with the Manhattan armory project and a similar one in Jersey City. Following a report on the program last February in theNorwood News, HIDTA officials toured the Kingsbridge Armory with the architect that worked on the 168th Street Armory, according to Christina Lyndrup, the agency's deputy director. Though its daunting size and structural damage have put the armory on what Lyndrup calls a "different track" from other armories under consideration, the agency will continue to study the site, bringing in engineers and meeting with interested community organizations.

Meanwhile, activists with the Northwest Bronx Community and Clergy Coalition are pressing the case with federal officials. The organization, which has three affiliate groups in neighborhoods near the armory, expects to meet with a representative the federal Drug Czar - who oversees HIDTA - in September. U.S. Senator Alfonse D'Amato wrote to McCaffrey on behalf of the group in April, requesting that he visit the Kingsbridge Armory and explore possibilities for making it productive again.

" ... I request that your office explore the feasibility of converting the Kingsbridge Armory into a Community Center, similar to the conversion of the 168th Street Armory," the senator wrote following an armory tour and meeting with the Coalition.

Right now, Lyndrup said, there is no certain funding available, explaining that forfeiture funds are "not a line item that comes up every year." Still, she said, HIDTA can continue to play its role - as it did at 168th Street - of "bringing different partners together."

As for funding, there is also the possibility that $26.5 million in city funding may be available for the restoration of the water-damaged facility, particularly the roof over the drill hall. That money was designated for the armory previously but was moved to a "general facilities fund" over the winter, according to Councilman Adolfo Carrion, a rookie lawmaker who represents the area that includes the armory.

Since then, Carrion says, the Bronx Council delegation has been "fighting ... to return the Kingsbridge Armory line and insure that the money that was allocated by the City Council in the past [is] still available." Carrion said the Bronx delegation recently met with staff of the Department for Citywide Administrative Services, a mayoral agency.

"We were assured at that meeting that the $30 million was still dedicated to the armory notwithstanding the fact that it didn't show up as the Kingsbridge Armory in the budget," he said, adding that the delegation would request that the city Office of Management and Budget restore the armory budget line.

Many Coalition members would like to see the armory house a number of public schools and youth programs.

Isabel Colon, a Kingsbridge Heights parent who joined the coalition to address overcrowding problems at PS 86, which her son attneds, toured the armory recently and emerged with high hopes for its educational possibilities .

"It's so enormous it could be a lot of things," Colon said. "Above all, we're interested in schools being built there."

Many elected officials are wary of the schools concept, though, and suggest other uses like athletic events and retail stores. Carrion believes the fortress architecture, which was landmarked in 1974, precludes the necessary ventilation and light for proper classrooms.

Others see the potential for altering the building to allow for light. Joan Byron, an architect with the Pratt Institute Center for Community and Environmental Development who will be working with the coalition to raise money to develop a plan for the armory, said that structural changes are possible.

"The Landmark Preservation Commission's mission is preservation," Byron said. "Preservation doesn't mean paralysis. Doing nothing with this building means that the building will be lost."

Lyndrup of HIDTA said the biggest obstacle to re-creating the armory space - the giant roof over the drill hall - is in such poor condition that it may have to be removed.

"If they don't take it off, it's coming off anyway," Lyndrup said. "I think [the Landmarks Commission] would have to recognize that pretty soon it's going to be condemned. It's going to be really dangerous."

In fact, the Landmarks Preservation Commission, a city agency, allows changes to landmarked facades, including armories.

"We review changes to armories all the time," said Terri Rosen-Deutsch, the agency's chief of staff, adding that permission for windows and other facade changes was granted for the 7th Regiment Armory on Manhattan's Upper East Side.

While there are as many suggested uses for the armory as there are people suggesting them, Byron believes the armory, which covers four city blocks and has significant space underground, can accommodate multiple projects. In planning the Park Slope armory project, which involved a series of public planning forums with community residents, "we showed people they could all share the armory and have room left over," Byron said.

Regarding the Coalition's interest in schools, Byron said the "head house" - the front section of the armory facing onto Kingsbridge Road - has a "huge amount of space in that part of the structure that would lend itself to just the kinds of spaces you need in schools." There are even classrooms with windows in this section.

Carrion said the armory can be used for "short-term revenue-creating uses" as soon as the building is stabilized, citing parking and park-and-ride services in particular. "At this point it's just a matter of getting some incremental stuff going on there while we think about the longer term," Carrion said. "What can we do for the next 48 to 72 months?"

To be sure, there are daunting practical and political obstacles in the way. While the $26.5 million - if successfully obtained by the Council - will help repair the building, it will cost many millions more to retool the building for new, permanent uses. Raising that money will take a monumental political push. The choppy political waters that divide Bronx Borough President Fernando Ferrer, and Mayor Giuliani also won't help matters. Finally, there is also likely to be a vigorous debate over how the armory can be self-sustaining after an initial public subsidy.

Still, many residents are encouraged by the potential collaborations with HIDTA and with Pratt. Believing too much is at stake to do nothing, they say there is no choice but to take the long hard steps to make the armory work again for the community.

For Isabel Colon, who looks forward to the day when her son and other children don't have to share a room with 35 classmates or eat lunch at breakfast time, "The alternatives are just unacceptable."

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