That chill in the air isn’t the coming winter. Instead, the Kingsbridge Armory took a big step closer to adding ice — and a lot of it — after state officials approved a $138 million loan to get a massive ice rink and education complex off the ground.
The move comes more than four years after a business group led by former New York Rangers center Mark Messier, Kingsbridge National Ice Center, first announced their plans to turn the massive century-old structure on Jerome Avenue and West 195th Street into at least five ice rinks and a school, all to teach inner-city kids through the sport of hockey.
That proposal beat out a number of other possibilities for the 750,000-square-foot armory, which included a film and television complex, a mixed sports complex involving both hockey and basketball, and even a chess center.
Some state and local officials doubted, however, that Messier’s group would have the resources to foot the nearly $350 million bill it would cost to make the ice complex dream at the Kingsbridge Armory a reality.
How much is $350 million? Messier would have to match the salary the Rangers paid him in the 1997-98 season — and then multiply it nearly 60 times.
Assemblyman Jeffrey Dinowitz, a supporter of Messier’s plan, said he’s happy this latest major hurdle was finally cleared to make the complex a reality.
“This has all been going at a snail’s pace, but this was an important step,” Dinowitz said. “I don’t support every development project, to say the least. But I think this will be a tremendous benefit to the Bronx.”
Dinowitz has a personal affinity to the armory — he grew up three blocks from it on University Avenue.
“Even when I was a kid, there were all kinds of events that would take place at the armory, and it wasn’t just military things,” he said. “It goes back a long way.”
But not everyone is convinced. Longtime resident and political activist David Kornbluh fears the city is missing an opportunity to turn a struggling part of the Bronx around with the Kingsbridge Armory as the focal point.
“We have this very large space over there in a neighborhood that is probably the poorest and lowest income in the city of New York, possibly the nation,” Kornbluh said. “It seems to me as a matter of common sense that it is not an ice skating rink that is the thing the community there needs the most.”
Instead, Kornbluh prefers the city look to Brooklyn and what’s happening with the armory in Crown Heights. Just last week, city planning officials approved a plan that would turn the 540,000-square-foot Bedford-Union Armory into affordable housing and commercial space in efforts to help turn that neighborhood’s economic misfortunes around.
“There are many people of a good will, including Mark Messier, who are involved in this, and they really want to do what’s best,” Kornbluh said. “There are no bad guys here, in my mind. But looking at low-cost housing seems to be a sensible thing to do here for such a large space.”
But even the Crown Heights project isn’t immune to controversy. Protesters claim the city is trying to gentrify the Brooklyn neighborhood with the project, and actually create higher rents there than lower, stabilized rates.
The state loan now gives Messier and his team the keys to the Kingsbridge Armory now that Mayor Bill de Blasio has backed off opposition to transferring the lease from the city. But Kingsbridge National Ice Center will surely have its work cut out for them — the armory has been mostly abandoned for years, and is in a serious state of disrepair.
But the building itself could make it all worth it. It’s a fortress that literally looks like a medieval castle on the outside. Inside, there’s an existing auditorium that can seat up to 800, as well as a drill hall that’s the size of six football fields.
Dinowitz envisions the armory would anchor an educational corridor that already includes schools like P.S. 86 Kingsbridge Heights, Lehman College, the High School of American Studies, and even DeWitt Clinton High School.
“There is a tremendous opportunity for joint programming and joint ventures, and ways of getting those schools together,” the Assemblyman said.
“This is a huge undertaking, and for Mark Messier and everyone involved, this is a huge risk,” Dinowitz said. “They want to do it here, and they want to do it in this kind of community. They really want to make an impact on a place like the Bronx.”