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  • A New Redevelopment Plan for the Kingsbridge Armory

    resize_armory A plan to build the world's largest ice sports in the Kingsbridge Armory has the support of developers, the city and a coalition of community groups. Jordan Moss reports for the Bronx Bureau. For 20 years, community groups and the city wrestled over the Kingsbridge Armory. The latest and most likely proposal includes a landmark community benefits deal that could be a national model. Almost a century ago, in 1917, the Kingsbridge Armory opened for the National Guard. But the longest battle related to the landmark was launched in 1993 when the soldiers left the building as the state handed it over to the city. Twenty years later, peace is at hand. A proposal to turn the 575,000-square-foot landmark, on Kingsbridge Road in the northwest Bronx, into a widely unexpected athletic ice-skating center is just at the beginning of a six-month approval process, but it's widely expected to get the go-ahead. But already, the Armory saga offers a critical policy lesson for ordinary New Yorkers and grassroots organizations working to achieve the greatest degree of community influence on significant projects using public property. Over the past 20 years, the Armory has been the subject of proposals by school superintendents, who sought to relieve overcrowding, and neighborhood organizations, who wanted school space and community facilities—all shot down by the city. Mayor Giuliani proposed a sports and retail complex. That flopped. Mayor Bloomberg backed a mall, but that proposal failed amid a dispute with a community alliance over whether tenants would pay a living wage to their workers. Almost four years after the Bloomberg proposal's defeat, it now looks like an ice center boasting nine athletic skating rinks – the largest such facility in the world – is headed for approval, thanks to support from the community alliance (called KARA, or the Kingsbridge Armory Redevelopment Alliance) the borough president, mayor and councilmembers. There appears to be zero organized opposition. The Kingsbridge National Ice Center would be the first permanent ice skating facility in the Bronx, a borough with thousands of immigrant families who've never skated in their lives. Some might scratch their heads wondering why the plan is considered a win by so many activists and community leaders. The reason, supporters say, is the Community Benefits Agreement the leaders of KNIC, KARA and other Bronx organizations signed. Its strength is unprecedented in New York City, according to experts. And it could be the model for other projects. A 20-year saga National military cutbacks and the structure's growing deterioration caused the state to vacate the Armory in 1993 and hand it over to the city. Between 1993 and 1996, two consecutive school superintendents had forums and armory tours with the public, hoping there was a shot at creating schools within the massive facility in a desperately overcrowded District 10, the second worst in the city. And while that didn't go anywhere, in 1998 leaders of the Northwest Bronx Community and Clergy Coalition got to work, laying out their ideas with the help of the Pratt Center for Community Development. That led to an ambitious proposal for a project including three 800-seat schools, a sports complex, an exterior park and green market, restaurants, a bookstore and a community center. Despite years of meetings and rallies, that plan was essentially put aside. The city ruled out schools in the inner part of the building, claiming problems with lighting that community advocates were certain could be remedied if the Giuliani administration had committed to the idea. In January 2000, Giuliani picked RD Management and its partner, Basketball City, to replicate at the Armory their large sports facility in Manhattan. In addition to sports, the companies proposed setting it up a mall that included a movie theatre. But they never came through with a completed plan to push through the approval process. Officials like Adolfo Carrion, Jr., then a councilman, said the developer balked at a high redevelopment expense they didn't expect. Unlike Bloomberg, Giuliani never even issued an RFP (request for proposals). For almost five years after Bloomberg came into office in 2002, there were meetings, discussions and tours by officials that led to nothing. Many focused on where to relocate the National Guard, even though they were in separate buildings behind the Armory. So it wasn't until the fall of 2006 that the city's Economic Development Corporation released an RFP. It took three years for the city to choose Related Companies' proposal for a giant shopping mall, much like its controversial re-do of Bronx Terminal Market. But KARA, with strong support from the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU) and Borough President Ruben Diaz, Jr., decided to vigorously oppose the plan unless Related guaranteed that everyone who worked in the Armory mall when it was done got a guaranteed minimum salary — $10 an hour with health insurance or $11.50 without. They argued that Related was receiving about $50 million in city and state tax breaks and paying a miniscule purchase price of $5 million (just replacing the roof years earlier cost the city $30 million). RWDSU and local, unionized supermarkets were worried about competition from new shops in the proposed mall that would pay lower wages. Diaz, Jr., who had just become Bronx borough president, took the political lead on pushing these efforts. “I want to do business in the Bronx,” Diaz said at a big Coalition/KARA gathering in 2009 when Related was pushing its plan. “[But] it is not radical to simply say, a) we should protect surrounding businesses and b) we should have jobs and livings wages.” He added, “You want to do business, we can do business. But business has to be good for everybody.” In his consistent mantra on this issue, he added: “If you want to create a mall on your own dime, [then go ahead and pay what you want]. If you want a subsidy, then the community deserves a subsidy as well.” front Councilman G. Oliver Koppell (D-Riverdale, Kingsbridge, Norwood, Woodlawn, Wakefield)—whose district borders the armory—was flexible on the specifics, but unwilling to let a mall go through with significant public funding but no benefit to workers. “If Related had living wage jobs, we would have gone through with it,” he said. Related, a large corporation — with mall projects throughout the city and country — wasn't new to including the living wage (they do just that in Los Angeles where it's required) but Bloomberg clearly didn't want to set a Big Apple precedent. “From early in the planning process, we made clear we would never add mandatory wage requirements which would make the project unviable, and that was a line we were never going to cross,” he said in a 2009 statement. “It's not the role of the public sector.” In a rare defeat of a project reaching the end of the public process (it had achieved Community Board 7 approval) the Council voted the ULURP down 45 to 1 in December 2009. Ice comes to the Bronx After the Council defeat, the Bloomberg administration did little on the Armory. Diaz commissioned a large study of options for the building; it was criticized for reflecting hope more than realism. But the mayor and city's Economic Development Corporation (EDC) did finally put the armory back on the policy play list in early 2012, launching another request for proposals. Early on, the city announced it was considering two finalists, the Kingsbridge National Ice Center, which proposed the world's largest ice facility, and a flexible market, planned by Youngwoo and Associates, with entertainment, recreation and business incubator space. EDC took its time – 14 months after the proposal was launched in early 2012 —to announce they were going with the Ice Center, which, if approved by the City Council, will be the world's largest with nine rinks. KARA didn't get to decide what the Kingsbridge Armory would become. They weren't invited to promote a vision at the beginning of the process but they met with both Youngwoo and the Ice Center before EDC made a decision. “Ultimately [KNIC] offered a CBA so we started working with them [more closely] to make sure that was going to happen,” says Elisabeth Ortega, an active KARA negotiator, who got involved with the Coalition eight years ago as a youth leader. Kevin Parker, KNIC's CEO, discussed the impact of KARA's efforts at a June press conference in front of the armory. “If the community wouldn't want us here, then we wouldn't come,” he said. CBAs raise questions Several New York City projects—Yankee Stadium, Columbia's West Harlem project, Atlantic Yards, and others—have included CBAs but advocates have often detected a key flaw: the lack of a robust enforcement mechanism if the developer goes back on his or her promises. In early 2006, many Bronx elected officials hailed the CBA attached to another deal with the Related Companies—turning the Bronx Terminal Market into a mall—as unprecedented. Related signed off on investing $3 million in job training and other programs and reserve space for local and minority-owned businesses. “This agreement should serve as the benchmark for doing business in our borough and throughout the city,” said then-borough president Carrion in his state of the borough address. But most of the 18 groups that participated in the process said they were not invited to play any role in the final decision. And groups criticized the fact that Related would only have to pay a fine of $60,000 if they didn't do what they promised and that their employment promises only affected their own hires, not those that would occupy the Bronx Terminal Market over the long term. The supporters of, and experts on, strong CBAs say agreements led by politicians are simply not CBAs, since elected officials get to vote up and down on the agreement and their decisions may be determined by issues other than the development project at hand. The KNIC CBA promises to be different. Brokered by community groups, its admirers say it includes a remarkably broad array of benefits—and a tough enforcement clause. A broad set of benefits If approved by the City Council, the Armory will have nine ice rinks including one that can seat 5,000 people “and be used to host national and international ice hockey tournaments, figure and speed skating competitions and ice shows,” according to EDC. KNIC also promises that its investment of $275 million will create 890 construction jobs and 267 permanent positions. In addition to living-wage salaries, KNIC has agreed to a variety of detailed community support: a focus on local hiring and contracting; construction of 52,000 square feet of community space; developing a small-business incubator; $1 million of community in-kind services including giving northwest Bronx residents a discounted rate and priority access to the ice-skating facility; free or discounted tickets for seniors, students and low-income families. There's also an agreement for a remarkable 27 “greening” efforts for the project including providing healthy working conditions for employees and contractors; discouraging the sale of sugary drinks, high-fat and highly processed food; collaboration to promote asthma awareness; and ensuring that 20 percent of the project's space stays undeveloped and is accessible to the public. NWBCCC and KARA have provided only a summary of the formal CBA (a more substantial, but unofficial “Execution Draft,” is here') until a press conference later this summer—making it impossible for Bronx Bureau to confirm that the deal includes a strict enforcement mechanism. But those directly involved with the negotiations cite their success with certainty. “We think it's a landmark agreement and it's an amazing victory for people in the northwest Bronx,” says Harvey Epstein, a project director of the Community Development Project at the Urban Justice Center, who cited the CBA as “a legally enforceable contract.” If necessary, you “go to court to enforce it. It's like any contract. You don't pay me back, I go to court.” Julian Gross, a San Francisco-based attorney who works closely with Partnership for Working Families on community benefit issues, agrees. “What makes it a strongly enforceable CBA is that it is legally enforceable by a broad range of independent community organizations and they had a good legal counsel while they were drafting it,” he says. “And it resulted from an inclusive community driven process. [These are the] three things that make it a strong CBA.” ‘Organizing works' Ronn Jordan, 48, got involved in the Coalition's armory efforts from the very beginning. He joined up with the grassroots group when, thanks to severe overcrowding, his kindergartner got bused from PS 56, the small public school a couple of blocks from his apartment in Norwood, to the most southern part of District 10. In June, Jordan proudly came up to the KNIC announcement from Daughters of Jacob, a Mt. Eden nursing home where he now lives. He wouldn't have come if he wasn't proud of where things are finally headed, but he's still keeping his eyes on what put him to work in the first place. One CBA section addresses this concern directly. KNIC has vowed to seek approval to de-map the area behind the Armory on East 195th Street, still occupied by the National Guard, to provide school space. They've also promised to spend up to $100,000 to achieve that. “We pulled a lot more stakeholders into this and the final result,” Jordan says. “Whether the ice center makes it or not, the end result is: organizing works. If you never take no for an answer, sooner or later the answer becomes yes.” In 1993, when the Guard vacated, Koppell highlighted a potential model for the Armory: Lake Placid's ice skating facility with four rinks. He doesn't claim that something he stressed a couple of decades ago, without much support, is relevant to what's happening now. But he believes vigorous opposition to city policies teaches mayors, and all city officials, a key lesson — that the community's efforts should be relevant in all such significant projects. “The key thing is to work actively with the community and try and meet the legitimate demands of the community when you're putting together a project,” Koppell says, adding, “You can't always accommodate every community need but you should try, and not try and push something through just because it's feasible.” Gross, the attorney from Los Angeles, says that as strong as the Armory CBA is, it's critical that community groups stay engaged. “I'm optimistic that groups in this CBA can monitor access but I would also like to see broader community involvement in CBA implementation,” he says. “It should be a shared task.” Lessons learned To get things to this point, it took 15 years of the Coalition’s devoted activism and nine years for all the groups under KARA. That raises the question of whether the vast time and effort on behalf of so many community residents and paid organizers, was worth it. “If the impact of this project was just limited to one community, then I would have a serious question about the utility of a fight that was that long,” says Mary Dailey, who was the Coalition's executive director from 1994 to 2005. But, thanks to the persistence of the organizers, they were able to achieve an unprecedented fusion economic justice and environmental sustainability into the final CBA deal. “That can have a positive impact on projects beyond the scope of this individual project [and] around the country,” Dailey says. For all the excitement over KARA's achievement, CBA experts wish residents could play even more of a key role—as the Coalition pushed for early on—in determining what was going inside the massive landmark. “There should have been more representation before the [city's] RFP [Request for Proposal] goes out,” says Good Jobs New York project director Bettina Damiani, who has shared her expertise with the Coalition. “We're still at a place in New York City where major development decisions are made without the communities at the table. The community is still left to react to a proposal that is designed by officials. What KARA managed to do was really insert itself as strongly as I've seen in that process.” Joan Byron, the director of Policy for the Pratt Center for Community Development who worked with the Coalition for many years after their push began, hopes Giuliani's failure, and Bloomberg's still-pending, but likely, success has an impact on how the next mayor handles similar planning. “'We're still going to have stuff to build,'” she envisions him or her announcing, “'but we're going to ensure that it has benefits for the community.'”

  • In Place of an Eyesore

    Julie Satow reports for The New York Times. Countless New Yorkers have driven by the construction rubble that lines the Franklin D. Roosevelt Drive from East 35th Street to East 41st. The eyesore has lingered there for more than a dozen years, the target of virulent community opposition, fraught City Council hearings and a lengthy approval process. Now the first shovels have hit the ground, and the block-front on First Avenue between 35th and 36th Streets will soon be transformed into two curving, copper-clad residential towers, creating some 800 new high-end rental units. “These buildings will really be a game-changer for the neighborhood, which is one of the most underdeveloped in Manhattan,” said Pamela Liebman, the president and chief executive of the Corcoran Group. A division of the company, Corcoran Sunshine Marketing Group, is working with Citi Habitats to market the project. The neighborhood, a slice of Midtown East sandwiched between Kips Bay to the south and Turtle Bay to the north, is ripe for development. The Second Avenue subway will eventually make it more accessible by mass transit, and the massive Midtown East rezoning — when and if finally approved — will probably result in new office buildings. Some builders have already taken notice, with the Zeckendorf brothers, for example, recently topping off an 88-unit condominium nearby at 50 United Nations Plaza. In many ways this strip along First Avenue, which has long been considered a medical corridor with anchors like Bellevue Hospital Center and N.Y.U. Langone Medical Center, is comparable to the Far West Side. That neighborhood, which also hugs the water, has undergone fairly extensive development since the Hudson Yards rezoning and the extension of the No. 7 subway line. As for the copper towers, at 616 First Avenue, their protracted saga began in 2000. That was when Sheldon H. Solow, the developer best known for his many lawsuits and prickly personality, partnered with the Fisher real estate family to buy 9.2 acres in three parcels from Consolidated Edison for around $600 million. Over the years the partnership dissolved, and Mr. Solow proceeded alone, cajoling politicians and negotiating with various city agencies to rezone the land for residential and commercial use from manufacturing, and spending millions of dollars for design work and environmental clean-ups. In 2008, Mr. Solow won approvals for a $4 billion development comprising seven towers, with designs by Richard Meier and Skidmore Owings & Merrill. But work never proceeded, and earlier this year Mr. Solow sold one of the parcels — just slightly more than one acre — for $172.5 million to JDS Development — which is now in talks to acquire the two remaining parcels, according to sources with knowledge of the deal. After having fought to get city approval for rezoning, Mr. Solow has a property worth far more than when he acquired it. (Calls to him seeking comment were not returned.) His decision to sell part of it to JDS raises intriguing questions. Mr. Solow, who shuns the spotlight, is well into his 80s, with a storied career in New York real estate as the builder of the tower at 9 West 57th Street and other iconic structures. In many ways he is a foil to Michael Stern, JDS’s managing partner. A Long Island native who did not graduate from college, Mr. Stern, 34, is often quoted in the press. He is a relative newcomer, having embarked on his New York City real estate career in 2004 after a stint with a developer in Florida. It wasn’t until 2011, with the start of marketing of Walker Tower, a high-end condominium in Chelsea, that he broke into the mainstream. But he has become one of the city’s most prolific developers, racking up high-profile projects including the 1,000-foot-tall condominium he is building with Property Markets Group at the former Steinway Musical Instruments building on West 57th Street. “I had known about the assemblages on the East Side,” Mr. Stern recalled, “and when the opportunity came up, I saw it as a unique chance to make a large impact on the skyline.” He added that he “pursued it aggressively.” The First Avenue development, which has not yet been named, broke ground in July and has an expected completion date in early 2016. At 49 and 40 stories, respectively, the towers can be built “as of right,” being the same size as in the plan proposed by Mr. Solow, although their designs differ significantly. “This area hasn’t seen any great architecture since the development of the United Nations” in 1947, said Vishaan Chakrabarti, a partner at SHoP Architects, which is responsible for both exteriors and interiors in the project. “This could be a harbinger of things to come in terms of getting more innovative design along the East River.” 04deal-2-popup The two buildings bend and connect via a sky bridge, billed as the showstopper, which will feature an indoor lap pool and a lounge area. The development will also have a rooftop deck with an infinity-edge pool, a fitness center, a boxing gym and a squash court. Other amenities include a children’s playroom, a screening room, and a demo kitchen and dining area. “The buildings are modern and fresh,” Mr. Chakrabarti said. “They dance with each other, not like Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire, but like Shawn and Beyoncé,” Shawn Carter being better known as Jay Z. The copper curtain wall that is to cover the northern and southern facades is a nod to the artist Richard Serra, whose torqued metal sculptures provided design inspiration. “It is not just the metal itself,” Mr. Chakrabarti said, “but the feeling of the electrons that move between the metal, the tension between the two forms.” The other sides will be glass. The site flooded during Hurricane Sandy, so the developer plans to put all building mechanicals on the second floor; he also envisions eight-foot floodgates, backup generators and a special outlet in each unit that will work in the event of a blackout. The development includes plans for a privately owned park, still contingent on the approval of the city’s Department of City Planning, and for a public elementary school that will open this fall. Twenty percent of the apartments will be listed below market rate, and in exchange the developer will be eligible for a 20-year real estate tax abatement. “We really wanted an iconic design,” Mr. Stern said. “This is a large-scale site, one of the largest residential developments to hit Midtown East in a very long time, so it is important not to miss the mark and to push the envelope.” Luxury Rentals Take the Stage Increasing numbers of developers are pursuing luxury rental buildings like JDS Development’s new towers under way at 616 First Avenue. The concept is especially popular in up-and-coming neighborhoods, where it is often easier to attract rental tenants than condo buyers. Developers have been encouraged to pursue the trend by the success of buildings like the Related Company’s MiMA on the Far West Side and Forest City Ratner’s 8 Spruce Street in the financial district. Now joining the party is the institutional investor Invesco, which is rolling out a luxury rental brand in New York. Known as Instrata, it will be applied to several of the company’s rental products here, including Mercedes House on the Far West Side. That building, on West 54th Street, was originally built as a rental with condominiums on the upper floors. Invesco bought the condominium portion earlier this year, and will rebrand those top 11 floors, or 162 units, as rental units and name them Strata at Mercedes House. “Instrata is going to be our strictly luxury assets in New York,” said Michael Kirby, a managing director at Invesco Real Estate. To be included in the brand, buildings must have condominium-level finishes and offer plenty of amenities. The landlord will offer free concierge service to all tenants of Instrata buildings, he added. Other properties being similarly repurposed include the former Madison Belvedere on East 29th Street, to be known as Instrata NoMad; the Elektra on Third Avenue, now called Instrata Gramercy; and 75 Clinton Street, to be renamed Instrata Brooklyn Heights. Some of the buildings were conceived as condos; those built as rentals will be retrofitted with higher-end finishes or additional amenities. “Over the past several years,” said Rob Neiffer, a director at Invesco Real Estate, “there has been an influx in the number of high-end rentals. Before that, anyone who wanted to rent in a luxury building had to go to a condominium, so we identified this void in the market and are hoping to fill it.” This article has been revised to reflect the following correction: Correction: August 2, 2013 An earlier version of this article, using information provided by Invesco, misstated the street where Instrata Belvedere will be located. It is East 29th Street, not East 44th. A version of this article appeared in print on August 4, 2013, on page RE1 of the New York edition with the headline: In Place of an Eyesore.