City Hall’s agreement with the developers turning a Crown Heights armory into a recreation center always provided for just 250 low-cost memberships in an area with tens of thousands of low-income residents, documents obtained by THE CITY show.
That implodes Brooklyn elected officials’ boast they secured discounts for half of members or more as part of a 2017 deal with developers to convert part of the old Bedford Union Armory into housing — a project long touted as a boon for area residents.
It also counters local Councilmember Laurie Cumbo’s recent, sarcasm-laced statements to THE CITY, in which she deflected questions about promised community benefits she negotiated and declared: “There is no agreement. Nothing was ever written.”
On Wednesday, Cumbo posted a commentary on the website Medium championing the armory project, calling it “TOO BIG, TOO IMPORTANT, TOO CRITICAL TO FAIL” — and backing off her statements to the contrary.
The up-to-99-year pact with the city Economic Development Corporation (EDC) for the new Major R. Owens Health and Wellness Community Center, scheduled to open Oct. 27, allows developer BFC Partners to continue an announced 500 first-year limit on the total number of memberships indefinitely if it chooses.
THE CITY got and reviewed excerpts from the lease detailing the community benefits. EDC declined to provide the lease itself, demanding a formal Freedom of Information Law request to obtain the document.
A November 2017 commitment letter from developer Don Capoccia to Cumbo provided by the mayor’s office to THE CITY outlines the pledges to provide discounted recreation to some community residents — with the developer obtaining steep breaks on rent payments to EDC in exchange.
That letter and lease promise members access to fitness equipment but do not mention the competition-length swimming pool, to be run by Imagine Swimming. THE CITY reported that Imagine was advertising $50 half-hour lessons for kids at the armory.
The documents upend claims Cumbo made in 2017 when approving the real estate deal, which also includes hundreds of affordable and market-rate rental apartments. Her office announced: “At least 50% of memberships will be reserved for community members at discounted rates of just $10 a month for adults and $8 for a child under 16.”
But the EDC lease shows that 50% is the share of all memberships to be offered at a discount — not a minimum. It describes those memberships as accessing “fitness rooms containing fitness and exercise equipment typically found in commercial gyms” — with no mention of the pool.
And they show Capoccia can comply by offering just 250 memberships at $10 a month for adults and $8 for children. In Community Board 9, where those low-income memberships are being offered, about 45,000 people would qualify for the discount.
Nothing in either document appears to require Capoccia to offer more than the current 500 total memberships the developer says the Armory will be offering in its debut year. Nor does either regulate prices for standard memberships, which the developer recently announced will launch at $30 a month.
BFC Partners told THE CITY it will deliver on the pledged benefits. All members will be ensured at least two hours daily of family swim hours, according to a BFC spokesperson.
“We are absolutely committed to meeting every benefit we have promised. As we have said since day one, this will be a project Crown Heights will be proud of,” the developer said in a statement.
“To achieve this, we have worked with our partners to provide robust free and low-cost classes, camps and programming, ensuring residents at all income levels have real access to the state of the art Major R. Owens Health and Wellness Center. We are so excited to finally open the doors and share this incredible site with the community.”
Cumbo Fires Back
When contacted by THE CITY last week to learn more details about the community benefits, Cumbo, whose term ends Dec. 31, said she did not have documentation on hand.
“It’s not going to be accessible to anyone in the neighborhood or anyone in the community. No one, no one’s going to have access,” she said of the recreation center, adding:
“I hope when it opens, it closes.”
In her Medium post also blasted to her email list, peppered with all-capitalized phrases, Cumbo said she answered THE CITY’s questions “very sarcastically and flippantly” out of “frustration.”
She expressed exasperation with critics of the armory project and declared the rec center “THE SOLUTION TO ENDING THE GUN VIOLENCE EPIDEMIC IN OUR COMMUNITY.”
She added, referring to a difficult pregnancy that coincided with her vote approving the project: “The need to revitalize the Armory for not-for-profit organizations, athletic programming, a health center for the uninsured and the most affordable housing that Crown Heights has seen in over fifty years, was a project worth putting my life on the line for.”
Cumbo stood by the armory deal without detailing its provisions, writing: “There are original agreements and community benefit agreements that we are trying desperately to implement to make the Armory accessible and affordable to all, while recognizing that the capacity of the Armory is now greatly limited because of COVID restrictions.”
In the post, Cumbo repeatedly wrote that when a reporter from THE CITY contacted her, “I SHOULDN’T HAVE TAKEN THE CALL.”
She did not respond to requests Wednesday for comment about the restricted number of discount memberships.
Adams Calls for New Deal
A spokesperson for EDC, who asked not to be named, said that the lease contains mechanisms to make sure Capoccia complies and can be canceled if BFC comes up short on community benefits.
Adams, the Brooklyn borough president, was quoted in Cumbo’s 2017 announcement of the pact the Crown Heights Council member negotiated with Capoccia.
“Council Member Cumbo has shown steadfast leadership in fighting to secure the best possible outcome for Crown Heights,” said Adams, who applauded “lasting accessibility to a new neighborhood recreation center.”
Unlike Cumbo’s power to make or break the massive project, Adams had only an advisory vote on the armory under the city’s review process, in which he disapproved the rezoning proposal with conditions.
Chief among those conditions, the record of his vote shows, was the elimination of 60 condominiums from the project plan. BFC had said the condos’ sale would help finance the rec center construction.
A spokesperson for Adams now says more needs to be done to keep the surrounding community informed and the developer true to his commitments.
“The confusion around the terms of the memberships the Bedford Union Armory is offering to local residents shows the need for greater clarity, consistency, and communication. It’s clear as a community we must remain focused on holding BFC Partners accountable,” said spokesperson Jonah Allon in a statement.
“The City is doing this through the lease, and we need to make sure this project delivers true affordability and accessibility for all local residents.”
He added: “The residents of Crown Heights, who have been denied these kinds of community amenities for far too long, deserve no less.”
Lease and Letter Diverge
As previously reported by POLITICO NY, the deal gives BFC a rent credit for each dollar spent to provide community benefits, including membership discounts and reduced-cost admission to swim, soccer and basketball programs.
The lease details show rent starting at a minimum of $2 million annually, but potentially higher based on property values. BFC Partners told THE CITY that it anticipates providing $1.3 million in community benefits in the Owens Center’s first year — money it will mostly get to deduct from the rent bill, the lease excerpts indicate.
These discounts include $10 swim lessons and soccer clinics, THE CITY previously reported.
The lease differs from Capoccia’s commitment letter to Cumbo in one key respect: While the letter pledges minimum community benefits equivalent to 62.5% of the lease amount from the get-go, the lease says it doesn’t have to reach that target until year three. Capoccia is eligible for a credit of up to 87.5% of the rent owed, the lease shows, with EDC absorbing the cost of subsidizing low-fee programs.
If BFC does not provide the required benefits for two years running, the city can remove it from the project, EDC confirmed.
‘Going to Be Her Legacy’
Cea Weaver, a Crown Heights resident and tenant activist, flagged this generous public financial support as a problem after getting a glimpse of Capoccia’s letter to Cumbo in 2017.
She campaigned against the project because it did not provide entirely affordable housing in a city-owned property — joining in a chant of “kill the deal” at a key Council vote on the armory project, video shows.
She notes now that BFC asserted market-rate housing was necessary to subsidize the recreation center — even as the developer secured rent credits from EDC.
“Everything seems double-subsidized, and we’re not even getting that much,” Weaver told THE CITY.
She noted, too, that the financial formula EDC agreed to for determining the value of community benefits lets Capoccia and his facility operators hold the cards by setting rates and fees as BFC sees fit — and then claiming rent credits for generous price reductions.
“The value of the community benefit is not determined by anyone other than the provider of the ‘community benefit,’” she said.
Michael Hollingsworth, a Crown Heights activist who ran unsuccessfully for Cumbo’s City Council seat this year against her protege, noted she had told constituents that the armory’s redevelopment will be her legacy.
“It is going to be her legacy,” he said, “but not in the way that she thought it was going to.”