I have been to several New York City public hearings and the one last night about the proposal to redevelop the Kingsbridge Armory, one of the world's largest armories, was undoubtedly the most interesting, and the longest.
Clocking in at just over four hours, the Armory hearing in the Lehman College faculty dining room, which was required of Community Board 7 which must vote on whether or not to support the project according to city's land use review process, featured everything from folk peace songs to near violence.
I'm not going to get into everything in this post, but I did want to run through a few of the highlights quickly.
The evening started out with a bang as about a hundred or so construction union guys, mostly from Positive Workforce, a big supporter of the Armory's designated developer, the Related Companies, literally bum rushed past cops and security guards into the dining room and installed themselves as a backdrop to all the night's speakers.
Several attendees were startled by their aggressiveness, others felt intimidated. Their message throughout the night was clear: build at the Armory now.
The hearing began at 6:30 p.m. By 7 p.m., police weren't letting anyone else in, citing fire code concerns. We managed to smuggle ourselves in through a sewer pipe. Not really, but you get the picture, space was tight. (A special thanks to Fernando Tirado, Community Board 7 district manager, for getting the press inside to witness the festivities.)
The hearing began with a round of "special" speakers (I think because they were disabled, they were allowed to speak first) from Co-op City who praised the project because of its apparent similarities to the Bay Plaza mall, which they think added to their part of the Bronx. It seemed kind of random.
Next up was Community Board 7's presentation of its idea, which Related has adopted into its design plans, for a World Peace Atrium inside the Armory. To kick off this presentation, CB7 land use chairman Ozzie Brown brought in his old friend Peter Yarrow (of Peter, Paul and Mary fame) to sing a song and say some words.
This is where things got a little awkward. Yarrow began by singing, "If I Had a Hammer," which was met with a tepid response from the audience. A second attempt was more successful, with about half the crowd joining in and clapping and singing along. As soon as the song concluded, representatives from the Kingsbridge Armory Redevelopment Alliance (KARA) -- which came out in full force and dominated the speaking portion of the hearing -- began a forceful and deafening chant: "What do we want?" "GOOD JOBS!" When do we want 'em?" "NOW!"
Peter Yarrow sings a peace song at the Armory hearing
After things calmed down, Yarrow spoke about the civil rights movement and how the country had become increasingly angry and polarized over the years, but was coming around now with the election of Barack Obama. He was frequently interrupted by people yelling out things like: "How much are they paying you?" and "Gentrification isn't civil."Later, Yarrow said he was surprised by the level of disrespect and animosity at the hearing, adding that he was not there to support the project, per se, but to facilitate constructive dialogue. He said he empathized with the anger being expressed, but seemed saddened and disturbed by the whole scene.
In any case, Ozzie Brown went on to present his World Peace Atrium idea, which, as I mentioned earlier, Related has adopted into its design plan. It's still a little unclear exactly what this will entail, but from what I understand it will be kind of an educational tribute/museum to peace workers like Martin Luther King, Jr., Ghandi and Mother Teresa, complete with statues and informational kiosks.
After this, Ethan Goodman, a lawyer for the Related Companies gave a 15-minute presentation on their plans for the Armory, saying they wanted to open up the former closed-off military installation to the community. We'll get into this more later, but at the end, Goodman talked about the community space, which he said would amount to 27,000-square-feet. Besides the Peace Atrium, Related's plan looked pretty much the same as it did when they first won the bid last year. They've also included 60,000-square-feet of space for a large retail store or supermarket, which representatives from Morton Williams, which owns the Associated supermarket across the street from the Amory, said would destroy their two Bronx supermarkets and force them to close shop in the borough for good (more this later too).
Related's presentation was followed by essentially three kinds of public testimony: KARA representatives (lots of them, they dominated the hearing, no question) who told Board members to vote no on the project unless Related signed a Community Benefits Agreement, which would include union protections, living wage job requirements (which Related says is a non-starter) and free or affordable recreation space; representatives from Morton Williams who were adamantly opposed to the supermarket idea for obvious reasons; and construction workers from Positive Workforce who supported the project wholeheartedly.
More coverage and photos and thoughts about this tomorrow.
The Community Board will vote on the project on July 14 at 6:30 p.m. at the Bronx Library Center.