The Kingsbridge Armory redevelopment plans remain on hold, as the developers and the city are lodged in a standoff over the lease agreement.
While construction is stalled, small business owners on Kingsbridge Road are playing a waiting game. In anticipation of the armory redevelopment, some commercial landlords are raising rents or refusing to renew leases, making it difficult for mom-and-pop shops to survive the wait.
Spanning two city blocks, the impenetrable brick behemoth has lain vacant for two decades. In that time, numerous proposals for malls, homeless shelters and schools have screeched to a halt.
In 2013, the Bloomberg administration approved the $350 million proposal to transform the 750,000 square foot property into a winter sports center that will house nine year-round ice rinks and a stadium for professional ice hockey and ice skating events. The plan stuck because it had the backing of community members, local leaders, elected officials and former New York Ranger Mark Messier, CEO of the future ice center.
In April of this year, Kingsbridge National Ice Center Properties LLC (KNIC) filed a lawsuit against the New York City Economic Development Corporation (NYCEDC), which owns the lease to the armory. KNIC seeks to prove that they have met their funding requirement and that the NYCEDC has deliberately stalled them from beginning construction.
KNIC was required to secure $158 million to finance the first phase of construction, which includes completion of four ice-rinks and 50,000 square feet of community space.
The 99-year lease to the Kingsbridge Armory is being held in escrow until Messier’s camp can secure funding for the first half of construction to the NYCEDC’s satisfaction. Without the lease, KNIC developers cannot begin construction.
The NYCEDC has filed a motion to dismiss KNIC’s suit as meritless wrote Nick Paolucci, press secretary for New York’s Law Department, in an email. Paolucci says that so far EDC has only received notification of a $15 million commitment from the Empire State Development Corporation (ESD).
In the lawsuit, KNIC claims that they have given adequate proof to NYCEDC of financing. KNIC stated they have raised $20 million themselves, and that the ESD publicly stated that the board approved KNIC for a commitment of $138 million.
“Our client wants the deal the community deserves — the signed lease with no strings attached. That is the only way this project will achieve the dream of creating jobs and opportunity in The Bronx,” said William A. Brewer III, partner at Brewer, Attorneys & Counselors and lead counsel for Kingsbridge.
In March of this year, the Department of Buildings (DOB) issued four permits for the removal of a the sprinkler system, interior demolition of non-structural partitions and removal of mechanical and plumbing works said Andrew Rudansky, deputy press secretary for the DOB. Rudansky confirmed that the 2013 permit application by KNIC to change the use of the armory into an ice skating center was denied in October 2013 due to incomplete paperwork.
Supreme Court justice Ruben Franco, who heard the case, offered a compromise in court — that the city extends the deadline for KNIC to secure funding to February of 2017. The city has suggested a slightly less conservative deadline of December 2016.
Both sides have touted the redevelopment of the armory as a distinct opportunity for community growth in the Bronx. However, both parties will not budge on their position in the case and the neighborhood remains in limbo.
THE COMMUNITY RESPONSE
The Kingsbridge Armory Redevelopment Alliance (KARA), a community based organization in the Bronx created by the Northwest Bronx Community and Clergy Coalition, worked with KNIC to create a Community Benefits Agreement (CBA) for the armory renovations in 2013.
KNIC singed the CBA, along with 25 signatories comprised of local community and religious leaders. The agreement holds KNIC to certain standards, like paying employees a living wage, hiring majority Bronx residents and providing $1 million in in-kind services to the community.
However, the CBA goes into effect once the ice center is complete, and only focuses on businesses and vendors within the ice center. While construction is delayed, community member and KARA leader Ileia Burgos has been instrumental in advocating for commercial tenants on Kingsbridge Road affected by the impending changes.
"Landlords began several types of efforts to push out small businesses,” Burgos said. “Hiked up rents, double or triple what they were, people didn’t have leases."
KARA members were present last month when Mayor de Blasio signed a commercial tenant harassment bill into law, which clarifies what does and does not constitute tenant harassment. It gives commercial tenants the power to hold bad landlords accountable. Merchant complaints at community board meetings and KARA meetings alike began increasing about a year and a half ago.
Burgos said that KARA plans to join forces with the Urban Justice Center in the coming months to survey merchants on Kingsbridge Road, to find out exactly what commercial landlords have been up to. It’s an opportunity for the organization to stop relying on rumors and anecdotes, but to get some hard data, Burgos said.
Of the 270 businesses on Kingsbridge Road between Sedgwick Avenue and Grand Concourse, about 70 percent are locally owned mom-and-pop shops.
Two blocks east of the armory, is Christian Ramos’s shoe repair shop, Blue Chus. Neon signs in blue and yellow illuminate the front window. Inside, the store smells like leather and shoe polish, along with the scent of a new product he’s trying out, perfumes.
Ramos immigrated to New York from Ecuador 13 years ago and has been a small business owner in Harlem and the Bronx for 12. He’s become an unofficial consultant for his fellow merchant neighbors.
Over the last year and a half, Ramos said, commercial landlords in the neighborhood have been slowly increasing their rents and removing leases in anticipation of the armory redevelopment. Many storefronts along the strip are disappearing, while others are changing their business strategy to stay afloat.
When Ramos opened Blue Chus in 2004, his rent was around $2,000. Luckily for him, he was able to renew his lease in 2015: $3,200 a month for five years. Ramos’s rent is on the lower end of the spectrum for small businesses on Kingsbridge Road. He says that rents run between $3,000 and $6,500 depending on the size of the store and the nature of the business.
To make a profit, Ramos needs to sell $8,000 to $10,000 in merchandise per month. Selling new shoes and repairing old ones has worked for him so far, but he has to earn more, he said. He began selling perfumes and some jewelry to boost his revenue and stay in business. So far, it’s been effective.
Two doors down from Blue Chu’s, a Texas Chicken and Sandwich occupies the storefront of what used to be a Kennedy Fried Chicken. The owner is the same, but he refranchised when his rent increased, Ramos said.
A little further west, the Metro PCS on Kingsbridge and University Place has gotten a facelift. The inside is sleek and new, brightly lit signs flash outside to attract new customers.
The Kingsbridge Armory Redevelopment Alliance is working closely with local businesses and the CBA signatories to find possible homes for local merchants within the future ice center, if it ever gets built.
“Merchant organizing has to continue,” said Ileia Burgos. Burgos has been an active member of KARA for years, back when plans to turn the armory into a mall were squashed.
There wasn’t necessarily a particular allure to the addition of an ice center in the Bronx for her, said Burgos, rather the excitement around KNIC was that the developers were willing to negotiate terms with community members and they delivered on their promise.
Now that the project has been even more delayed with the introduction of the lawsuit, skepticism is rising that the ice center will turn out to be a figment, much like other defunct armory proposals.