The Bedford-Union Armory, at first glance, doesn’t look like much of a battleground. You amble off Eastern Parkway, wide and tree-lined, and approach a grim structure of faded brick two blocks south on Bedford Avenue, its curved roof looming like the top of a zeppelin long ago crashed to earth. No one’s inside. You could be forgiven for wondering what the big deal is.
But this is New York, and vacant real estate will inevitably lead to bad blood. In this case, it’s the fight over the future of a 114-year-old armory that may determine the course of a City Council race, a mayoralty, and what comes next for a Brooklyn neighborhood anxious over gentrification’s steady march.
“Everyone has a different vision for the Bedford-Union Armory,” Councilmember Laurie Cumbo, the Democrat who represents the area, tells the Voice. “Some people want 100 percent low-income housing, some people don’t want any housing. Some feel we don’t need a recreational facility, some do.”
Exasperation creeping into her voice, she adds: “Some people think there should be a supermarket.”
Cumbo, who just became a mother, is running for re-election in the 35th Council District, which spans the neighborhoods of Crown Heights, Fort Greene, Prospect Heights, and Clinton Hill. The district, historically a mix of blacks and a politically potent Hasidic Jewish sect in Crown Heights, is increasingly home to affluent newcomers, many of them white.
Like most incumbents, Cumbo enjoys the support of major labor unions and elected officials, but she is not easing into a second term. She is locked in one of the most acrimonious primary races of any in the city, trying to fend off the same well-funded challenger she defeated in 2013, Ede Fox. And if Cumbo wins on September 12, she will encounter the rarest of New York rarities: a general election against a charismatic third-party candidate — Green Party nominee Jabari Brisport — with unprecedented momentum behind his bid.
At the center of this rumble is the armory. For Cumbo, it’s a chance to see a legacy-making project through to its conclusion. For Mayor Bill de Blasio, who is tacitly backing her, a loss would mean yet another setback on a major real estate project that will help meet his affordable-housing promises. And for everyone else who opposes de Blasio’s redevelopment plans, stopping any deal is the only way to stave off further gentrification.
“The craziest part of the Bedford Armory project is the fact it’s on public land and we’re allowing a developer to build 50 percent luxury housing,” says Jonathan Westin, the director of New York Communities for Change, a leftist group that is campaigning for Fox. “We’re not using the available resources to build a 100 percent affordable project. That’s why we continue to see a skyrocketing homeless population.”
At the end of 2015, the city-run Economic Development Corporation, along with Cumbo and Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams, announced their backing for a 500,000-square-foot mixed-use plan to redevelop the long-vacant armory. The plan called for around 300 units of housing, half deemed affordable and the other half market-rate, along with a recreational facility, a community events space, and office space.
Residents in the dense slice of Crown Heights where the project would rise have long bemoaned the neighborhood’s lack of parkland and recreational space. Under the EDC’s proposal, the facility would get indoor basketball courts, a swimming pool, and an indoor turf field.
Yet controversy followed. After becoming embroiled in a scandal over turning a Manhattan nursing home into luxury condos, the original developers dropped out. Then Carmelo Anthony, the Knicks basketball star, backed out of a commitment of money from his charitable foundation for the sports center.
Though Anthony didn’t cite any particular reasons, growing community backlash likely drove him away. Residents and affordable-housing activists railed against the project from its inception, charging Cumbo with aiding and abetting gentrification. In addition to decrying the plan to include market-rate housing — all of which would be far out of the reach of working-class neighborhood residents — critics pointed to “affordable” apartments that could go to families earning as much as $100,000 for a family of four.
This May, Cumbo declared that she could no longer back the city’s plan, calling it “gentrification at its worst.” De Blasio, though, has kicked off the lengthy Uniform Land Use Review Procedure — the City Planning Commission, the local community board, and the borough president weigh in before the City Council ultimately rules on the project — and negotiations are expected to continue.
For progressive activists and Cumbo’s opponents, scrapping the project and starting over is the only option. Fox, who directed the City Council’s economic development division before jumping into this race, believes Cumbo is keeping the project alive to placate real estate interests who spent heavily to elect her in 2013.
In 2013, Jobs for New York, a political action committee funded by the Real Estate Board of New York, spent millions on expenditures for City Council candidates across the city, including some (like Cumbo) aligned with the legislative body’s tenant-friendly progressive wing. By law, these expenditures could not be coordinated with the Council campaigns, and Cumbo denounced the PAC’s spending at the time, even if she ultimately benefited from its largesse.
In 2017, with far more incumbents seeking re-election, REBNY has sat out the races. Cumbo calls the real estate board’s 2013 spending “ineffective.”
“I don’t have any skin in the game with REBNY,” she says. “Why would I feel pressure to do anything for them?”
Reverend Daryl Bloodsaw, pastor of the First Baptist Church of Crown Heights and a prominent backer of redevelopment, falls into Cumbo’s camp. “I’ve seen it too many times when potential progress was thwarted because a certain group of people were against a particular portion of a deal,” he says. “So many of the people who are against this part of the deal don’t even have a personal interest in Crown Heights. They’re people from outside this community — once this deal is completed, this way or another, they’ll be off to something else.”
Other locals, like Michael Corley of the Union Street Block Association, want a full recreational center with no new housing, on par with the Park Slope Armory — a project de Blasio backed as that area’s councilmember. “When de Blasio had the armory question, he put a dead stop to any kind of development taking place there,” says Corley. “Fast-forward to when he becomes mayor. He’s got amnesia.”
Both Fox and Brisport think they have a solution: Transfer ownership of the armory into a community land trust run by local stakeholders. The hope would be a project free from the need to erect any kind of market-rate housing, with all units set aside for the working class and poor. Attorney General Eric Schneiderman’s $5 billion settlement with Goldman Sachs, Fox notes, set aside $30 million for land banks and trusts.
Brisport, running with the enthusiastic support of the resurgent Democratic Socialists of America, is an actor and activist who is hoping to follow the example of Kshama Sawant, a fellow socialist who was elected to the Seattle City Council. His chances are still slim, but he has raised about $20,000 and could receive public matching funds for the general election.
“I am an open socialist,” Brisport says. “Whereas progressives push for more affordable housing as an end to itself, my goal is to have community control of all land.”
The primary has proved to be as bitter as advertised. Fox says Cumbo has been “falling down on the job.” Cumbo, weary from the attacks but glad to counterpunch, dismisses Fox as a lightweight.
“You have someone who runs a campaign like that, similar to Donald Trump,” Cumbo says. “You get what you see.”