In a Brooklyn City Council district transformed by real estate development, one symbol looms especially large in the race to replace term-limited Democrat Laurie Cumbo: a long-abandoned, city-owned armory on Bedford Avenue
Construction on the recently rechristened Major R. Owens Health and Wellness Community Center, now almost fully transformed into a community recreation center, with hundreds of new apartments attached, is slated to wrap in August. The facility bearing the name of the late local Congress member is expected to open by fall.
“It’s going to be the greatest success story,” Cumbo recently told THE CITY.
But the term-limited Council member has come under fire for voting in favor of the armory development deal — a line of attack that is now hitting her former staffer Crystal Hudson, who is running for the seat in the June 22 Democratic primary.
Leading the charge against Hudson is rival candidate Michael Hollingsworth, a member of a local union of Crown Heights tenants enduring upheaval and displacement as their once-working class neighborhood gentrifies.
Both Hudson and Holllingsworth — among eight hopefuls vying for the Council seat representing Crown Heights, Clinton Hill, Fort Greene, Prospect Heights, Downtown Brooklyn and part of Bedford-Stuyvesant — told THE CITY that Cumbo’s decision to approve the site’s rezoning represented a failure of local leadership.
In separate interviews, both candidates said that they opposed the project at the time because the housing units weren’t 100% affordable to local residents. Of the 415 planned apartments, 250 are set aside for households earning no more than $64,440 for a family of three.
“I’ve clearly staked out a side in the fight for about five years now, which has always been standing with my neighbors, standing with union labor against a lot of these luxury rezonings,” said Holllingsworth, 43.
Flip and Flop
It’s not the only current development project in the district that’s become a flashpoint for anti-development activism. An Associated supermarket on Nostrand Avenue is set to close to make way for new apartments, while a planned pair of towers closer to the armory threatens to overshadow the nearby Brooklyn Botanic Garden.
Cumbo has become a frequent target for Hollingsworth and other activists. She was among 20 Council candidates elected in 2013 with the help of independent spending by the real estate industry and faced a primary challenge four years later after she came out as an enthusiastic supporter of the armory project.
As initially proposed, the development was to contain two dozen condominium townhouses whose sale would help pay for the new community center. In the heat of that 2017 reelection challenge, Cumbo did a double about-face.
First she declared that she would use her influence as the local Council member to kill the armory project unless developer BFC Partners removed the condos. Then, once the plans got reworked to rentals only, Cumbo renewed her support and voted in favor in November 2017.
Cumbo told THE CITY her history with the project dates back at least 10 years, when she participated in community meetings well before her election, and local officials — including then-U.S. Rep. Owens, then-Councilmember Letitia James and then-Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz — allocated funds to the center.
“It would just be very difficult for anyone to understand the complexities and the nuances and the history,” she said.
Cumbo firmly stands by her 2017 vote. She said when the center opens for a majority-Black community devastated by gangs and gun violence, “You’re going to see young people able to fulfill and realize their dreams in ways that they never even thought possible.”
Cumbo said she doesn’t have the time, energy or patience to respond to critics who try to discredit her.
“This project has brought on the type of backlash that you would think I had been trying to put a prison there,” she added.
As the sole candidate in the race to have worked for Cumbo, Hudson is taking the heat. She notes she was not on the Council staff at the time of the controversial Council vote.
“I played no role in that decision and I wasn’t working for Laurie in government capacity when she made that vote,” Hudson said
She was, however, working part-time as Cumbo’s campaign treasurer, while maintaining a full-time marketing job for Amtrak. “There weren’t many opportunities for me to have conversations with her about the project,” Hudson said.
Hudson trusted Cumbo would vote against the armory and was “disappointed” when the Council member flip-flopped, she said. On the vote’s third anniversary last November, Hudson published an op-ed in the local outlet Bklyner under a headline calling the project “a disgrace.”
“At that time, I didn’t know how she was going to vote,” Hudson told THE CITY.
A month after the vote, Hudson became Cumbo’s chief of operations. Hudson said she voiced “a different perspective” like a “gnat in Laurie’s ear” for the next 18 months.
Hudson, 38, has raised more than any rival with $101,812 in private donations, and $262,256 including public matching funds.
She told THE CITY that other candidates have jumped at the opportunity to link her campaign with Cumbo’s land-use voting record because “they get scared when they see that I will be the first gay Black woman ever elected in New York City.”
An Affordable Housing Push
Hudson chalked up her time with Cumbo, in addition to a 10-month stint with Public Advocate Jumaane Williams, as a valuable learning experience in local government.
Hudson said she doesn’t want any more public property in the hands of private developers. “Anytime we have publicly owned land, we should be developing 100% affordable housing,” she said.
Hollingsworth has publicly opposed the armory project and Cumbo for years.
Esteban Girón, a longtime member of the Crown Heights Tenant Union, said that plans for a recreational center didn’t appear on the group’s radar until 2015, when the city’s Economic Development Corporation began engaging the community in leveraging the planned condos to fund the recreation center.
Girón’s group and other tenant advocacy organizations opposed the plan, arguing that bringing market-rate housing to the city-owned site would accelerate gentrification.
After the EDC selected two real estate companies, BFC Partners and Slate Property Group, to jointly develop the project in 2015, activists “were successful in getting rid of one of those developers but not the other,” Girón said.
Slate backed out of the deal after being exposed as involved in a dubious Lower East Side real estate transaction that would have turned a local health care facility called Rivington House into the site of luxury condos, following a fumble by City Hall.
Hollingsworth, who became involved in activism in 2016 when his landlord began converting apartments in his building to what he calls “luxury condos,” joined the opposition to the armory project. He’s since battled other developers in the community and in court.
In 2019, he filed a lawsuit in state Supreme Court against Cumbo, city planning officials and developers of the proposed towers near the Brooklyn Botanic Garden. That development is halted under court order.
In January 2020, police arrested several activists when they tried drawing attention to work resuming on the controversial project near the garden despite a previous restraining order. That’s when Hollingsworth decided to run for office, he said.
“We had been talking and, you know, just having conversations like ‘somebody should really step up and run, somebody should take this on, we don’t want to spend another eight years dealing with somebody like Laurie Cumbo,’” Girón said.
‘The Jig is Up’
Grassroots support quickly jelled around Hollingsworth, he said.
Now, Hollingsworth, who’s raised the second most in the race with $228,496, including $68,052 in private donations, has a broad progressive coalition of support, garnering endorsements that include the New York City Democratic Socialists of America and state Sens. Jabari Brisport and Julia Salazar, both Brooklyn Democrats.
Hollingsworth said he’s tired of developers getting direct access to elected officials thanks to their donations and lobbyists.
‘We know that these developments are never beneficial to our communities.’
If elected, he said he wants to roll out a comprehensive plan on development citywide to address the glaring disparities that exist in underserved communities of color.
“The jig is up,” he said. “We know that these developments are never beneficial to our communities — not in terms of the jobs that they’re ever promised, and definitely not in terms of actual housing for members of the community.”
He offered few details, saying it would be a “heavy lift” requiring City Charter revisions.
In December, Council Speaker Corey Johnson, who is running for city comptroller, introduced a bill to create a 10-year plan to “correct neighborhood disparities and decades of disinvestment in communities of color and support equitable growth to create a more resilient and inclusive city.”
A ‘Critical’ Rec Center
In December 2019, developers broke ground on the center.
According to the EDC, the 60,000-square-foot recreational center will house three basketball courts, a multi-use field, swimming pool, fitness center and space for boxing and archery. Also on tap: computer and coding classes, dance and performance studios, and literacy courses.
In a statement, BFC Partners said that the center is “a critical addition” to the area, offering “deeply affordable homes for families and formerly homeless New Yorkers, and providing access to a state-of-the-art community and wellness center for those who have far too often been left out of our city’s progress.”
The facility is set to house nonprofits in 45,000 square feet of space, including Ifetayo Cultural Arts Academy, New Heights Youth and Brooklyn Community Pride Center.
Tashauna Hylton, who lives on President Street near the center, said she’s hopeful the center will bring safe activities for local children like her 9-year-old son.
“A lot of the kids don’t have anything to do,” said Hylton, 40, also raising a 5-month-old son. “They get in trouble or they just hang out right in front of their home.”
But for months, Hylton and many of her neighbors haven’t been happy with the project.
They said the construction has inconvenienced the community. Construction workers quickly snatch up the sparse parking spaces on what was once a quiet Brooklyn street.
They have been concerned with noise, air quality and safety conditions at the site.
Elizabeth Fortune and her husband, James Thomas, who live across from the construction site, said they have encountered rude workers. Thomas said he almost got into a fight with one after confronting him for openly smoking weed.
The couple has contacted local officials, the developers and THE CITY about generator fumes permeating their home.
Fortune, a high school teacher who often hears workers cursing during the day when she teaches her virtual class, documents her experiences on Twitter.
“As I am working remotely due to the ongoing pandemic, I have resorted to running personal air filters and diffusers during the day,” she wrote in a late March email to several officials, including Cumbo, Williams and local community board members.
A representative of BFC Partners told THE CITY that the generators are no longer an issue since their recent removal from the construction site.
Members of construction workers’ union Laborers’ Local 79 have also taken issue with the project, complaining about the use of non-union labor.
“Local 79 has hundreds of members that live in that district that would like to work in that district, but that’s not the case there,” said Chaz Rynkiewicz, the union’s director of organizing.
In a statement, BFC Partners said it’s hired dozens of local workers and “committed 25% of our construction hard costs to [Minority/Women-owned Business Enterprise] participation for local contractors.” It also noted that it’s planning to employ building staff affiliated with the Service Employees International Union 32BJ.
“We will continue to display our commitment to a diverse, local workforce that will eventually benefit from this new hub in the heart of Crown Heights when we are able to open our doors to the community later this year,” the statement continued.
On a recent weekend, Hollingsworth protested along with Local 79 union members, marching from the BFC Partners’ office on Myrtle Avenue to Cumbo’s office on Hanson Place.
Some locals fear that the development will displace longtime residents if it makes the neighborhood more upscale. Hylton said her landlord is already trying to raise her rent.
“I’m just hoping that we can all stick together and try to fight it as best as we can,” Hylton said.