Long-time Crown Heights residents, union workers and affordable housing advocates converged on the corner of Bedford Avenue and Union Street in Crown Heights Tuesday night to protest the development of City-owned land by a for-profit developer.
The Bedford Union Armory, first acquired by the city in 2013, is slated to become a mixed-use space with a sprawling community recreational center and office space, plus a combination of market rate condos and various levels of affordable housing.
"Affordable housing should not be shelters and hotels," said state Senator Jesse Hamilton, speaking to the fears of displacement. "The armory is free land. It's our land that we own. We shouldn't be selling off million dollar condos that people in the community can't afford in order to fund the rec center. This is not a land giveaway."
The original development team, comprised of Slate Property Group, BFC Partners, and Knicks forward Carmelo Anthony—who was to advise and fund the rec center—has fallen apart since the $16.5 million Rivington House scandal, in which Slate was embroiled. Slate backed out in August over bad press, while heavy lobbying by community groups pushed Carmelo Anthony to withdraw support just weeks later. BFC Partners remains the lone developer standing on the project.
The protest specifically targeted Joseph Ferrara, one of the Principals of BFC Partners. Ferrara has drawn fire from the Crown Heights Tenants Union and others in the community who have been angered by his open enthusiasm for Donald Trump. Residents see this project as the inheritance of a thirty-year-old model for pushing long-time residents out through luxury development.
"If you're supporting Trump and you're a millionaire, you're also supporting those racist groups," said Vaughn Armour of New York Communities for Change. "That's no good for our community."
Around 40 protestors gathered on the corner outside of the armory, surrounding Anthony Williamson, a member and organizer of Local 79, who led the rally in support of union construction jobs and affordable housing.
An email from Assemblywoman Diana Richardson argues that the development would use 100 percent non-union construction labor, raising safety concerns.
"These people are your neighbors. Why wouldn't you want to give them the jobs?" said Esteban Giron, a Crown Heights resident of five years and prominent member of the Crown Heights Tenant Union. He highlighted the increasing pressure and scare tactics being used by landlords in his area due to rising property values.
Protestors believe the armory project will fuel the affordability crisis in the predominantly black and West Indian neighborhood, which is already struggling with the pressures of gentrification. According to the Furman Center, in 2000 Crown Heights was 79 percent black and 9 percent white. As of 2014, the black population had decreased to 66 percent, white the white population had doubled to 21 percent.
The project promises 50 percent affordable housing, yet housing advocates claim only 18 of the over 300 units would actually be affordable for Crown Heights residents. The affordability moniker is a contentious one, based primarily on the area median income, which is currently $90,600 for a family of four, $81,600 for a family of three, or $63,500 for an individual, according to the New York City Housing Development Corporation.
Residents of low-income neighborhoods argue the metric is skewed due to its inclusion of the entire New York City region, and is not representative of those in low-income neighborhoods. According to an NYU Furman Center report, the 2014 Crown Heights median income was somewhere between $41,867 (CB9) and $44,961 (CB8) for a household of three.
Protestors claim BFC Partners has not been straightforward with residents, and has disregarded community input in a rush to get the plan through. BFC's timeline states community input meetings started on February 18th, 2014, while Community Board 9's website shows a late January-February RFP deadline.
"There was this disingenuous community participation process going on," said Cea Weaver, Research and Policy Director of New York Communities for Change.
Protestors concede that BFC's process may have been legal, as community members and board input is not legally required in the RFP process, but they claim this bait-and-switch was dishonest.
"The project went out for developers to place bids on before they ever talked to the community," Giron claims. "From the beginning this has been a flawed process."
BFC said in a statement that it "continues to incorporate community feedback, as we have throughout this process, and we always welcome additional input from local stakeholders."
Ted Smith, Executive Director of New Heights, a non-profit education and sports organization, is in talks with BFC about bringing his programing to the armory. He said in a phone interview Wednesday that the project will provide "a lot of opportunities for education, recreation, and community programs that will help the local community. This will allow us to grow our program, serve more students, and have an impact in the Crown Heights and surrounding neighborhoods."
Smith could not comment on how his company could help at-risk youth if the project forced low-income individuals out of the area. He noted that his organization was looking to provide free or low-cost programming to the community and that it could be a gathering point for low-income youth across the city, but could not comment on specific pricing structures.
The recreation center has drawn support from Crown Heights residents, some of whom cited a spate of Jouvert shootings in the last few years as evidence of an increase in crime and gang activity in the area. Residents believe the center will provide community resources, support, and an after-school gathering place for at-risk youth.
But regardless of the benefits, residents oppose developing the rec center if it means conceding public land to private interests who will develop market-rate condos and fuel gentrification. Instead, they called for a complete scrapping of the project in its current form, and a return to the drawing board in order to develop the public land with city funds.
"If we want affordable housing, the city can build affordable housing," said Giron. "It doesn't have to be profitable by any stretch of the imagination. And the fact of the matter is the rec center we asked for doesn't need housing to sustain it. We have the funds."