By JOSÉ A. GIRALT & SÍLE MOLONEY
The following is an extended version of the story that recently appeared in our latest print edition.
Big news about what’s going to happen to the Kingsbridge Armory is nothing new at Community Board 7 (CB7) meetings. Discussions on the seemingly ill-fated development have been dragging on for years. At a recent CB7 general board meeting held on Feb. 22, Emmanuel Martinez, chairman of CB7, announced plans to gather input, once again, from the community on what will happen to the landmark building located on Jerome Avenue and West Kingsbridge Road.
“I want to make the board aware of the ad hoc committee that I will be creating; the ad hoc Kingsbridge Armory Committee,” Martinez said. “It’s important for us to start building an idea as to what are the community asks, how will the community be impacted, and most importantly, as community members and stakeholders, how do we work along with our small businesses and residents that would potentially be affected by this project.”
A new source of enthusiasm for the Armory’s repurposing comes from recently appointed Council Member Pierina Sanchez who represents District 14, in which the massive building is located. “There are two major entities who are the players and the deciders on what happens here,” Sanchez said. “The City of New York owns the land and the armory, and The State of New York has committed $108 million…it was $130 million, but the previous developer used a bunch of the money,” she added.
That developer is Kingsbridge National Ice Center (KNIC) Management which, as reported, proposed converting the 794,900 square-foot space into an ice hockey center with nine ice skating rinks and a 5,000-seat arena. A real estate advising firm had projected revenues from the project of over $1 billion in 30 years.
Government officials allege KNIC Management failed to raise enough private funding to advance with the project, whereas the developer disputes that assertion, as reported by Norwood News in June 2021. The matter is currently being thrashed out in the courts, and not for the first time. According to Norwood News sources, New York State was to provide $138 million (originally confirmed as $108 million, as reported), KNIC Management had invested $20 million, and $158 million was the amount that was required to be raised for the initial stage of the project in order for the City to relinquish the lease on the building from escrow for use by the developer.
Escrow is a legal arrangement in which a third party temporarily holds money or property until a particular condition has been met. According to our sources, the money which Sanchez refers to was used, in agreement with government officials, to contract entities specialized in assessing the site, to scope out the cost of projected work on the development.
Pulling the Plug
Norwood News sources told us last year that regular meetings on the KNIC project continued to take place between KNIC Management and government officials right up until mid-November 2021, when they were abruptly stopped. At the time, the City was preparing for a new change of administration. Norwood News was informed by our sources at the time that the reason for the non-continuation of the regular meetings was because a 2016 funding deadline for the project had not been met.
However, our sources also told us that the 2016 deadline came and went, and was therefore rendered obsolete since the parties continued to meet regularly to discuss the project over the intervening years, with government officials even formally requesting authorization from KNIC Management to use the facility as a food hub when the pandemic hit in 2020, as reported.
Our sources informed Norwood News that confirmation of the cost of the construction of the project had also been set/fixed by KNIC Management by October 2020, based on the State’s partial advance loan of $7.5 million to fund the assessment phase of the project, and that a real estate company had also been selected to oversee it, as required and agreed among the parties.
When contacted for comment on these points, the New York City Economic Development Corporation (EDC) told Norwood News, “We are disappointed the redevelopment of the historic Kingsbridge Armory, a centerpiece of the Kingsbridge community, has been set back. Notwithstanding that, NYCEDC looks forward to working with the community, the new mayoral administration, and local elected officials to rethink the uses of this historic building in the coming new year, and work collaboratively toward realizing that vision.”
The statement was co-signed by Sanchez, Bronx Borough President Vanessa Gibson, State Sen. Gustavo Rivera (S.D. 33) Congressman Adriano Espaillat (NY-13), Bronx Community Board 7 (CB7) District Manager Ischia Bravo and Northwest Bronx Community & Clergy Coalition executive director, Sandra Lobo.
When asked in December 2021 what the latest plans were for the armory, and if a new developer had been chosen for the project, an EDC spokesperson told Norwood News, that the agency was eager to engage the community, and that no new Request for Proposal (RFP) had yet been issued to prospective development bidders.
We later pushed both State and City officials for a reason for the seemingly abrupt end to the project, and the citing of the 2016 funding deadline five years later in 2021, despite KNIC Management’s assertion in June 2021 that it had raised more than the required funding in the meantime, and despite the fact that the State had set aside a State loan, as reported, for the project in its budget, which had been reconfirmed in the State budget every two years.
A State representative for Empire State Development responded in February 2022, saying, “Empire State Development (ESD) remains committed to working with the City of New York and local stakeholders to redevelop the Kingsbridge Armory in a way that serves the needs of the community.”
The agency also informed us that it was the agency’s understanding that the ice center project was not moving forward, that the State did not own the Kingsbridge Armory, so ESD could not comment on the details of any “de-designation” of KNIC by the City (NYCEDC), including the timing of the City’s requirement to secure financing, and that although the developer represented for several years that financing had been secured for the project, ESD was never presented with evidence of firm commitments from private lenders. Norwood News did not receive any separate response from EDC when we raised the same questions with the agency.
When we provided ESD’s response to KNIC Management for comment, we were informed that due to certain legal proceedings, they were precluded from speaking on the matter.
In the meantime, CB7 informed residents that any plans for the property would be determined by EDC, while seeking input from community leaders and civic organizations to make sure residents of the area feel their voices are heard. This is where Martinez’s ad hoc Armory committee comes into play. “That’s exactly to the point,” he said. “That’s what this committee would definitely work on…is building that consensus and working with all the players in the district.”
History of Discussions To Date
Stories on the different chapters of the development at the armory have graced the pages of Norwood News for decades. In the June 3, 2004, edition, the News reported on the first hearing at the City Council about the Armory since the National Guard left the building more than a decade earlier. Meanwhile, as reported, some of the ideas for the structure, discussed by community members and elected officials over the years, have included converting the landmark building into a school complex, a recreational facility, or a commercial hub.
New York City Department of Education (DOE) opposed the plan for a school, but then-Bronx Borough President Adolfo Carrión kept an optimistic outlook, saying at the time, “The Armory represents an opportunity to create sorely needed jobs and community amenities. So, it is imperative that planning proceeds without delay.”
In 2007 Norwood News published nine stories about the Armory with several making the front page. The headline for Dec. 17, 2009, announced, “City Council Defeats Armory Mall Proposal 45-1.” The first five issues of 2013 were dedicated to the proposal that, at the time, seemed to take priority, namely, converting the structure into an ice center for the world. The last issue of that year ended with a positive headline on the front cover, “Council Approves Kingsbridge National Ice Center 48-1.”
In the intervening years, as reported, it had mostly been a waiting game, with status updates on the financing of the project over the years remaining largely the same: in progress. In June 2021, as reported, when talks emerged about converting the armory into a salsa museum, KNIC Management told Norwood News it was not involved in such discussions, but that under the agreed, landmark Community Benefits Agreement, signed several years earlier in the context of the KNIC project, the community did have some leeway to decide on the use of some aspects of the site, and that potentially, a new salsa museum formed part of those discussions.
According to the developer, negotiations on the legal and financial arrangements between KNIC Management and the City and State were hampered by the pandemic. However, as reported, KNIC Management told Norwood News on June 22, 2021, that the company was oversubscribed, at over $400 million, in terms of capital commitments by investors for the project. KNIC Management described this at the time as something of a miracle amid the economic downturn caused by the pandemic. At that stage, the developer said the ball was in the court of the City and State governments in terms of the next steps that had to be taken as regards advancing with the project.
Community Board Discussion – Back to the Drawing Board?
Meanwhile, one concern raised at the February CB7 general meeting was whether the armory project would be rebooted from scratch, with previous development suggestions erased from consideration. Jean Hill, a CB7 committee member, sought more clarity about the current state of affairs from Sanchez. “We’ve been doing this [discussing the armory] forever and a day,” she said. “All of that is null and void now, and we’re starting completely from scratch? Because there was a whole idea from before so now, we’re at the start point and we’re starting all over from the beginning?” she queried. “I just want to clarify that part.” Sanchez replied with a simple “Yep, yep.”
The council member continued, “The Kingsbridge National Ice Center, they never got their financing together. They never had the money to do what they promised to do……which we all worked so hard on, and you all worked so hard on.” She added, “They never had the money [for the additional financing]. So now, the process that approved them [KNIC Management] to do what they [were] going to do, that’s all out the window. We are, unfortunately, starting over.”
KNIC Management is now exploring the possibility of developing the ice center project in New Jersey or elsewhere. The developer highlighted the cost to any entity looking to make the armory building habitable, saying it would require extensive environmental remediation to avoid breathing in airborne asbestos.
Armory Annexes’ $10 Million Renovation
In the meantime, on March 3, the New York State Office of General Services, the New York State Military & Naval Affairs, and the U.S. National Guard held ground-breaking ceremonies for a $10 million upgrade of two annexed buildings situated on the grounds of the main Kingsbridge Armory complex, located adjacent to the main armory building. Major General Ray Shields, the adjutant general, joined New York State Office of General Services commissioner, Jeanette Moy, were present to launch the revamp. “The project is all about our soldiers,” Shields said in his remarks.
Col. Richard Goldenberg later told Norwood News “The National Guard Armory is limited to the two structures outside the Kingsbridge Armory facility. The armory at 10 West 195th Street was originally the administrative annex of the massive Kingsbridge Armory next door, which was built between 1912 and 1917. The New York National Guard transferred title to the Kingsbridge Armory to New York City in 1996.”
He continued, “The two National Guard buildings now beginning their upgrade were first constructed to complement the larger armory structure in 1950 and 1957. They include administrative, storage and training spaces as well as a vehicle storage building. They will continue to house 100 NY Army National Guard Soldiers of Bravo Battery of the 1st Battalion, 258th Field Artillery.”
Back in 2004, Shields said, the first sergeant of the unit stationed there complained that the building was substandard. “It’s taken 18 years, but the work is finally being done,” he said. “The building renovation is funded by New York State, which shows the priority Gov. Kathy Hochul places on the National Guard,” Shields added.
He continued, “It’s so crucial because the governor sees all the time how important our soldiers are. I think it’s just a great demonstration of the State’s commitment to our soldiers.” In her remarks, Moy said the New York National Guard was one of her agencies’ most important clients. “Considering what is happening today in the world, what’s happening here in New York, being able to give back by being able to help us renovate this historic facility to contribute to the mission in the readiness of the troops, that means a lot to us,” she said.
The Office of General Services is responsible for the construction and upkeep of New York state buildings, and is overseeing the armory annex upgrade project. Capt. Zachary Rowland, the battery commander, said he was happy to see the investment being made in the building. “A lot of the soldiers are from The Bronx, from this area, so they take pride in being from The Bronx,” Rowland said. “So to see this kind of investment in Bravo Battery and this community means a lot to the soldiers, because it is their backyard,” he added.
According to the U.S. military, the renovation contract calls for replacing all roofing and windows as well as rehabilitating the electrical, plumbing, air condition, and heating systems. The interior space – offices, locker rooms, storage areas, classrooms, and latrines – will be redesigned for modern office computer and phone systems. The buildings will also be made compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act.
Government Contract Win?
The U.S. military further confirmed that Fratello Construction Corporation, based in Farmingdale on Long Island, received the construction contract worth $9,033,108 in December 2021. Norwood News has asked the U.S. military for more information on which other firms responded to the RFP, as well as the basis for choosing the selected firm.
Part of the negotiations on the original Community Benefits Agreement signed with KNIC in the context of the main armory building, revolved around prioritizing local procurement. City and State officials would therefore have been aware of this being a priority for the community, irrespective of which building was under discussion.
Work on the annexes is, reportedly, due to be completed in April of 2023. Military representatives said soldiers who drill in the facility are currently drilling at New York’s Camp Smith Training Site located about a 45-minute drive north in Cortlandt Manor.
The Road Ahead
As for the main Kingsbridge Armory building itself, in her concluding statement to CB7, Sanchez tried to convey a more optimistic view of its future. “We have a pretty good team,” she said. “[State] Sen. [Gustavo] Rivera has been in conversation with us. They’ve been talking to the governor’s office. They are a big part of the reason why we still have $108 million in the state budget for a loan… In Congress, Congress Member Adriano Espaillat is talking [about] negotiations on Build Back Better…. In Washington D.C., they’re keeping it on the table that The Bronx needs infrastructure money.”
A new timeline for the main building’s development has yet to be established therefore, but it’s clear that the clock has been reset on the armory’s future. Sanchez hopes to avoid another generation of Bronxites witnessing an abandoned, block-long property sitting sadly empty when it could be used to improve the lives of so many. “This has been 30 years in the making,” Sanchez said about the previous attempts to re-purpose the massive building. “I was a little, little girl looking at the armory vacant, and it’s still vacant.”