A classic Brooklyn gentrification battle is brewing over the redevelopment of the Bedford-Union Armory in Crown Heights, which is poised to enter the city’s land use review process. Dozens of neighbors and activists showed up to a public meeting on the project last night to demand that the development not go forward unless it includes 100 percent affordable housing.
During a public scoping meeting last night, residents vocally opposed the redevelopment of the former military building, which would create 330 apartments and a new recreation center. The few supporters who stepped up to the mic last night were frequently drowned out by local activists, who chanted, “Kill the Deal!” But opponents weren’t simply demanding more affordable housing. They wanted the city to transfer the block-long property, which sits on Bedford Avenue between Union and President streets, into a community-land trust.
“If it was put into a community land trust, it can be affordable forever,” said Bertha Lewis, founder and president of the Black Institute and former CEO and chief organizer of ACORN. “We can recreate for free forever, and we can house people and have decent union jobs forever and not just open at the door and just sweep it out the hallway,” she continued. “$2500 for an apartment? Really, brother? Kill this project, right now.”
Stephen Lurie, a relatively new Crown Heights resident and a member of the New York City chapter of Democratic Socialists of America, noted that low-income tenants were being priced out of the neighborhood every day. “In the last two years alone, at least 1600 households have been evicted at Ebbets Field Apartments,” he said in his testimony. “Out of 330 proposed rental units, only five percent will only be affordable for Crown Heights residents. That’s not affordable.”
He also criticized the development team for allegedly not disclosing $16 million in “hidden subsidies” from the city to fund the construction of the recreation center, which will be built in the armory’s soaring drill hall. A spokesman for the developers said they are exploring all potential funding sources for the recreation center, but did not deny the figure or the fact that city funding may be involved.
The current plan would involve preserving the historic exterior of the 102-year-old structure and developing a mix of market-rate condos and rentals, below-market rentals, middle-income condos, recreation facilities, and discounted office space for local nonprofits.
Of the 330 rentals, 165 would rent for below-market rates. However, only 67 apartments—or 20 percent—will rent for rates that the average family in Crown Heights could afford to pay. 18 units will go to households earning 40 percent of the Area Median Income, or $31,068 for a family of three, and 49 units will be set aside for households earning 50 percent AMI, or $38,335 for a family of three. There would be 99 units for folks making 110 percent AMI, or $85,347 for a family of three. Only 30 percent of the below-market units will remain permanently affordable, because the mayor’s Mandatory Inclusionary Housing policy requires it in exchange for a rezoning. The remaining 164 units would be market-rate.
The median income for southern Crown Heights is $41,475, or roughly 46 percent of the AMI for New York City and its surrounding counties, according to 2014 census data.
The ownership portion of the project would include 12 low- to middle-income condos and 48 market-rate ones.
Union construction workers, a local rabbi, and future non-profit tenants in the building also defended the armory development.
“I’m a union worker too, Local 79,” said Martin Allen, who grew up in the neighborhood. “Local 79 isn’t going to build affordable housing, it costs too much!” he added. “I came from Crown Heights. I went to jail from Crown Heights. I’m not saying idolize BFC, but they gave me my shot. From them giving me a shot I ain’t gone back to penitentiary.”
Rabbi Eli Cohen, who heads the Crown Heights Jewish Community Council and has lived in the area for 44 years, asked, “Are we going to see the blight, the disrepair for another 30 or 40 years while someone else figures out how to do this again? Or are we going to see a living breathing project that occupies this corner?”
Geoffrey Davis, whose non-profit James E. Davis Stop the Violence Foundation will rent below-market space in the armory, argued that the neighborhood desperately needed recreation space that would prevent local kids from hanging out on the street and getting involved in violence.
“As I look around and see the faces yelling out about this project, I don’t see the faces yelling out about the gun violence,” he said. “Our children are dying every single day…Countless people were killed during J’ouvert.”
In December 2015, the city Economic Development Corporation announced that the armory would be converted into a rec center, community space, retail, condos and a 13-story rental tower. BFC Partners, Slate Property Group, and Flatbush nonprofit CAMBA were the original development team, and Knicks star Carmelo Anthony had promised to contribute to the rec center through his charitable foundation. City officials pressured Slate into dropping out last August, after the firm got embroiled in the Rivington House deed restriction scandal. Anthony backed out a few weeks later.
Last week, BFC tapped the Local Development Corporation of Crown Heights to join the development team. LDCCH will create a fund for affordable housing using funds generated by the sale of the armory’s 56 condos.
Last night’s meeting was the precursor to the city’s seven-month-long public review process. The City Planning Commission is expected to certify the rezoning and begin the process later this spring or summer.