Bedford-Union Armory fight spills over into 35th City Council debate in Brooklyn
The fight over the future of the Bedford-Union Armory in Crown Heights was at the center of Wednesday night’s candidate forum for the hotly contested District 35 City Council race.
Both applause and raucous boos erupted from the packed auditorium at P.S. 9 in Prospect Heights as incumbent Laurie Cumbo (Democrat) and challengers Ede Fox (Democrat), Jabari Brisport (Green Party) and Scott Hutchins (Green Party) answered questions posed by the community on the controversial Armory plan and other pressing community concerns, including gentrification and housing.
The project would include office space and a sports complex, along with a mix of affordable and market-rate rentals and condos.
Fox has accused Cumbo of waiting too long before publicly coming out against the proposal, backed by Mayor Bill de Blasio, which would allow roughly 50 percent luxury housing on the city-owned site. Opponents want 100 percent affordable housing at levels that can be afforded by local residents.
Cumbo has received the backing of numerous unions, and many of their T-shirts could be seen in the audience. Moderator Rachel Holliday of DNAinfo called on Fox first to speak about her stance on the issue.
“I have been very clear all along where I stand on the Armory,” Fox said. “It needs to be developed, but it needs to work for the local community.”
Fox said she backed a community land trust as an option “to provide the community some control over what happens there, but first and foremost I’m hearing from the community and from everyone in the neighborhood that we have to make sure that there is 100 percent affordable housing and that that affordable housing is [reflective of] the local community’s income.”
Fox pointed out that the neighborhood was indeed in need of a community center and gym. “The city is going to have to put more money in to make that work but it’s important, it makes this community vibrant, it makes it strong, it’s a worthwhile investment of city funds.”
Fox also accused Cumbo of flip-flopping on the rezoning issue.
“What are we supposed to get out of rezoning? The purpose is to build luxury high-rises,” Fox said. “The issue of trust is important. Where do you stand on rezoning? We have seen a flip-flop on these issues. We don’t know where you are going to stand.”
Cumbo replied, “I have been on the ground on all of these issues. The other candidate, I have not seen them … actually at the table.”
Cumbo firmly defended her stance on the Armory proposal, which she publically opposed at a press conference at Borough Hall in May. She told the crowd that the issue was important because “how we handle the Bedford-Union Armory is going to set a precedent throughout the city.”
Over the past six years, it was the community which came up with what they wanted to see at the Armory, Cumbo said.
“Affordable housing, a world-class state-of-the-art recreational facility, space for not-for-profit organizations, and Medgar Evers College being able to expand across the street from its existing building. These were elements that the community put forward,” Cumbo said. “I still believe that those are the right elements. However, luxury condominiums is something that that the community never said that they wanted.”
She added that the affordable housing had to be “reflective of the AMIs [Area Median Income] of the community as it currently exists.”
Hutchins, who is currently living in a homeless shelter, said he also backs 100 percent affordable housing at the Armory. He received hisses and loud boos, however, when he said that Cumbo had praised Councilmember Levin when he approved the sale of the Brooklyn Heights Library last year.
“Can we trust her tonight?” he asked, as the crowd erupted. “She encourages that kind of behavior in other council members.”
Cumbo received applause when she lashed back.
“That project brings affordable housing into our district … into Clinton Hill,” she said. She added that the library deal would also bring jobs into the district, and added later in the discussion, “On the trust issue, my record speaks for itself.”
Brisport avoided pointing his finger at his fellow candidates, saying instead that he doesn’t trust Armory developer BFC Partners.
“It needs to be led by a non-profit community land trust. I’ve been arguing that since March and I want to see it get done, and I [also] believe in a vacancy tax and a property flipping tax,” he said. These measures “would increase funding for the housing that we need,” he said, “so we can have our cake and eat it too.”
Even when the Bedford-Union Armory project was not mentioned by name, there was criticism of for-profit developers and public-private partnerships.
“I believe we should look at many organizations such as the Fifth Avenue Committee, Pratt Area Community Council, now called IMPACCT, and many other organizations that have experience working with the people and also have goals in local hiring,” Cumbo said.
She added that all developers should be held accountable for “amenities” such as schools, hospitals, parks and open space.
Hutchins also had a problem with for-profit developers.
“The problem is that what they’re calling affordable housing isn’t affordable for a lot of people, and certainly not for me,” Hutchins said. “There are working people living in the shelter system. I’m one of them. I’m on unemployment at the moment but I was working,” he said. “I couldn’t afford anything that they’re calling affordable housing. We need to get the profit motive out of this, we need to get a community land trust going and we need to stop this private development, because all it is is corporate welfare.”
Brisport said he doesn’t even like the term ‘public-private partnership’ because every developer “uses our roads, uses our public police, our public environment, our public street lights. So let’s cut that crap out right now.”
He said that the 421A tax abatement program caused the city to lose more than $2 billion in revenue. These “tax breaks for the rich ultimately put your tax dollars into private pockets at the expense of people that are homeless, like my friend Scott here,” he said.
Fox also came out against public-private partnerships. “I think we have seen in terms of housing, in terms of schools, in terms of parks, that it is not working for New York City.”
“We need to capture all of the revenue that we are owed in tax dollars to support residents, and that is not what’s happening now. “
The candidates also shared their stances on topics such as waste transfer stations (all agreed there are too many in the district), green space (all agreed on its importance), bike share programs (Cumbo said that dockless bikes should be tried to keep parking spaces available for cars), bike lanes (Cumbo said they are often put in without the community’s involvement), charter schools (all came out against them and agreed there are too many in the neighborhoodalready), Rikers (needs to be closed) and access to local, healthy food (all agree on its importance).
The forum was sponsored by Crown Heights North Association, the Brooklyn Heights Association, Fort Greene Association, Prospect Heights Neighborhood Development Council, Society for Clinton Hill, and the New York League of Conservation Voters Education Fund.
Video provided by Prospect Heights Neighborhood Development Council, a sponsor of the forum, here: https://m.facebook.com/phndc/posts/130362187598444
Story updated with names of forum sponsors on 9/8/2017.
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