What “We Did It” Truly Means: The Power of Community Organizing In the Bronx

By: Kara Crawford

armory

The Bronx. 9 year-round ice rinks. Community organizing. 260 living wage jobs. A vacant building. What do all of these have in common? The Kingsbridge Armory.

 

The Kingsbridge Armory is thought to be the largest in the world. The 575,000 square foot landmarked building was constructed between 1912 and 1917 in the Kingsbridge neighborhood of the Northwest Bronx in New York City. It was originally used for military purposes during the second World War and housed a 300 by 600 foot drill floor as well as offices, a garage, rifle and pistol ranges, a dining room, a gymnasium, and an auditorium in basement and sub-basement levels. It has not been used for military purposes since 1993 and has been vacant since 1996.

 

Mayor Bloomberg announced on April 22 in a press conference that the armory would be developed into the Kingsbridge National Ice Center by the KNIC Partners LLC, with the project scheduled to break ground late in 2014. He was accompanied by Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz, Jr. and other Bronx and other Bronx and NYC politicians alongside Olympic figure skating gold medalist Sarah Hughes, former New York Rangers hockey player Mark Messier, and KNIC Partners LLC Founder Kevin Parker.

 

The Kingsbridge National Ice Center is planned to be a 750,000 square foot ice sports center – the largest in the world – featuring nine year-round indoor ice rinks, among them a 5000 seat arena for major ice hockey and skating events.  The City of New York has already invested $30 million in the armory for cleanup, roof replacement, and repairs. The developer is projected to invest another $275 million in the project.

 

The triumphalistic tone of the press conference and the way the politicians spoke of the process leading up to this decision failed to celebrate let alone acknowledge the hard work and community organizing by Bronx community leaders in the process of redevelopment negotiations. Their cries of “we did it” and “the Bronx is back in a big way” (the latter a quote from Ruben Diaz, Jr.) did not even touch on what truly makes this project historic, and neglected the role of the community in making it happen.

 

Mentions were made of hopes for the project’s potential to positively impact the community; the developer, Kevin Parker pointed out that “the Kingsbridge Ice Center will also be making these sports accessible – finally – to the people of the Bronx for the first time through programs that not only teach sports but provide young people with free equipment, free ice time, and the metaphor of life that hockey and other organized sports brings. As we know, this is more than just about sports; this is about training kids to be good citizens.”

 

However, these remarks only manage to scratch the surface of the true benefit to the Kingsbridge and Northwest Bronx community which have been achieved.

 

What makes this project historic is that the developer, working with the Kingsbridge Armory Redevelopment Alliance, a coalition of community organizations and leaders from the Northwest Bronx, has agreed to what is speculated to be among the most comprehensive Community Benefits Agreements (CBA) in history.

 

The CBA, according to a summary released by the Northwest Bronx Community and Clergy Coalition, promises wall-to-wall living wages for all employees of the developer (estimated 260 permanent and 890 construction), defined as either $10 per hour with health benefits or $11.50 per hour without, to be increased annually, and provides workers the right to enforce this against the developer. A minimum of 51% of the jobs will go to Bronx residents, with first priority to the Kingsbridge community.

 

52,000 square feet of community space will be provided (for non-ice sport use), with the developer investing $8 million in its build out. The construction will be sustainable, and no big box retail or supermarkets will be allowed.  The building design will reflect the aesthetic of the culture of the Northwest Bronx, including displaying local artwork.

 

The equivalent of one million dollars of in-kind services will be offered every year for free use of the rinks by Bronx title 1 schools and non-profits. Priority access to the rinks will be given to Bronx public school students and their families at discounted rates.

 

Starting the year KNIC launches (projected to be in 2017 or 2018), the developer will pay 1% of the first $25 million of annual gross ice rink rental revenue and 2% for all revenue beyond that.

 

Almost needless to say, this CBA is truly remarkable.

 

The story of how it came into the picture is truly a testament to the community organizers who made it possible. It dates back many years to the first attempt at redeveloping the armory.

 

The first proposed project was for a mall, which, as Bloomberg pointed out in the question-and-answer session of the press conference, would have provided more jobs. However, he went on to insist that this project is far better for the community as a whole, providing living wage jobs and services to the community.

 

The previous developers refused to discuss a Community Benefits Agreement with local groups. Long story short, thanks to some incredible organizing efforts, the previous developers were effectively driven out of town. Two years later, when bidding for the project reopened, two new prospective developers came into the Bronx with a more respectful attitude. Although they were reluctant to discuss a binding CBA at first, they finally agreed to negotiations, which yielded one of the most comprehensive Community Benefits Agreements in history.

 

Ruben Diaz, Jr. was right when he indicated that this project signals that “the Bronx is back in a big way.” However, it’s not just thanks to the politicians who brought the developer in or the developer himself, as the mainstream story would let us believe. The true heroes of this story are the Northwest Bronx community organizers, leaders, and members of KARA who made this historical CBA a reality – the unsung heroes of the Bronx.

 

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