After three decades of city ownership of the empty Kingsbridge Armory — possibly the world’s largest at more than 500,000 square feet — it is now time for the community to take charge.
This is not a fantasy — it’s been done successfully in other cities. So, here’s why I, and so many others, believe that community ownership, in conjunction with an experienced developer, is crucial.
I moved to the Bronx in 2002 with my mom and two siblings after being gentrified out of Inwood. We settled in Kingsbridge in 2005. My mother joined the parish at Our Lady of Angels Church. Montezuma on Kingsbridge Road became our family’s favorite place to celebrate my sister’s birthday.
Kingsbridge became our home, our neighbors became family, but unfortunately our building was in really bad shape. After a fire in 2008, things got progressively worse, with no maintenance or repairs being done. So in 2010, we organized a tenant association.
When the late great Father Thomas Lynch introduced my mother to the Northwest Bronx Community and Clergy Coalition, we found out our building, along with nine others in the Bronx, were purchased around 2007 for $35 million by Milbank Real Estate based in Los Angeles. By 2009, Milbank was in foreclosure and these 10 buildings were up for sale.
We helped organize tenants in every building and tried to push the city to give control over to the tenants. Rather than give the tenants an opportunity to purchase the buildings themselves, Mayor Michael Bloomberg sold the buildings to Steve Finkelstein, and forced us to negotiate a two-year tenant protection agreement. A decade later, this is one of the worst evictors of Black and brown families in the Bronx, and my neighbors are still dealing with lack of repairs.
This is just one example of Bronxites struggling with awful, unjust landlords and developers who live far away and have no interest in providing safe and affordable housing to residents. We’ve made progress in various areas, but much of our community is still deprived of affordable and safe housing, sufficient school space, living-wage jobs, and more.
Redeveloping the deteriorating Kingsbridge Armory cannot fix all of this injustice, but it will be a significant pathway to growth and success when we succeed in securing community ownership along with a like-minded developer focused on attracting good, dynamic businesses that will hire and train Bronx workers.
Advanced manufacturing, urban farming, multi-use event space, STEM workforce development, or worker co-operatives are just some examples of what’s possible.
Community-led redevelopments have succeeded in several other cities. In San Diego, a community organized to co-own a site, Market Creek, that was in need of repair and revitalization. This development transferred 40 percent ownership to residents and a resident-led Neighborhood Unity Foundation.
And our comrades in South Bronx Unite recently submitted a plan to the city’s Economic Development Corporation to convert the abandoned city-owned Lincoln Detox Center into a center for health, education, and the arts — or, Hearts. Through a Community Land Trust, they plan to convert the 22,750-square-foot building into a community-owned asset.
The coalition started the fight 26 years ago when Mayor Rudy Giuliani could care less about Bronx economic development and didn’t put forth any decent idea that took hold. We made history when we, and labor unions, organized and got the City Council to vote down a Bloomberg-backed mall put forth by Related Cos., a well-known developer that wouldn’t agree to pay workers a living wage.
We also made history when we negotiated a groundbreaking community benefits agreement with the Kingsbridge National Ice Center that experts said was the most comprehensive and enforceable in the nation, including 50,000-square-feet reserved for community use.
All through the eight years that Bill de Blasio was mayor, KNIC didn’t fulfill the plan the city approved, as its financiers walked away. But that most recent failure did reconnect us to what the community and clergy coalition proposed in its very first blueprints: That this community should own and govern this project in partnership with a like-minded developer.
EDC has organized two Armory workshops with our collaboration in the last few months. That’s good, but a development of this magnitude requires even more input and more focus on what will be critical to a successful armory. That’s why this past year, the community and clergy coalition and its members have focused on learning sessions, research by Pratt Institute and Neighborhoods Now, visits to other relevant developments across the city, rallies, one-on-ones with store owners and more.
This happened at a time that was so critical to me. During the pandemic, I became a case manager at Part of the Solution, a food pantry in Bedford Park. It was an honor to work there and help those struggling with food and housing insecurity get access to public benefits and other programs. But this critical work on its own cannot address systemic root causes of these experiences.
It’s time that Bronx residents take the lead and responsibility for how the Armory is successfully developed and strengthens as many people as possible, with good jobs with good businesses, live events, access to nonprofit programs and services, and meaningful social and professional connections.
Community residents, leaders and organizers are the foundation for successful Armory redevelopment. We’ve learned and experienced again and again what does not work. If you care about this issue, please join us!
EDC, partnering with community and clergy coalition, will have its last Armory workshop on Saturday, March 18. If you agree that the community should own this asset, join us at our rally and march at the Kingsbridge Armory on Kingsbridge Road and Reservoir Avenue at 11 a.m., as we gather to head to the public workshop.
The author is an organizer with the Northwest Bronx Community and Clergy Coalition