The City Council member who backed plans to convert a Crown Heights armory into a recreation center charged Thursday the developers betrayed the community on discount access.
“I hope that when it opens, it closes,” Councilmember Laurie Cumbo (D-Brooklyn) told THE CITY as the Major R. Owens Health and Wellness Community Center gets set to make its grand debut Oct. 27. “And it’s the biggest failure New York City’s ever experienced.”
The facility, she declared, was “designed for the third wave of gentrifiers who are coming into the community.”
Cumbo tinged her strong words at times with sarcasm, coupled with frustration at questions about her role in approving the deal. At one point she snapped: “The armory doesn’t even exist…. The whole armory is an illusion. You win. You found it out.”
She spoke after THE CITY called to ask about newly released details about long-anticipated local discounts revealed by the developer of the soon-to-open rec center at the city-owned former Bedford Union Armory.
The developer, BFC Partners, said 250 discount memberships will be available for as little as $10 a month and $8 for children. The area served by the new rec center has 45,000 low-income residents, according to census estimates.
BFC vows at least $1.3 million in annual “community benefits” from operators of the center’s pool, basketball courts and turf field, also including $10 swim and soccer lessons for local residents.
THE CITY reported in September that swim lessons for kids were being advertised at a steep $50 a half hour. Regular rec center memberships will start at $30 a month, BFC Partners announced this week.
But Cumbo, whose approval in 2017 cleared the way for the swimming pool, sports gym and nonprofit space inside the historic former drill hall in Crown Heights — along with hundreds of apartments to come — declared the outcome a disaster.
“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.
“There are no affordable memberships for the community. There’s no accessibility. It was never designed for accessibility,” she added.
Just 500 Members
That’s a far cry from her tone when she and the Council approved the project four years ago and her office put out a news release headlined “Cumbo Announces Major Wins at Bedford Union Armory.”
The announcement that in addition to affordable housing, “Council Member Cumbo also negotiated several requirements to ensure that the state-of-the-art recreation center at the Armory will be truly affordable and accessible to Crown Heights families.”
Specifically, “at least 50%” of memberships would cost just $10 a month per adult and $8 per child, her summary said. The Council member called the project “fully aligned with the needs of our community.”
Details released by BFC this week show the 50% promise delivered — but with severe restrictions.
Only residents of the armory’s Community District 9 — encompassing parts of Crown Heights and Flatbush south of Eastern Parkway and north of Clarkson Avenue — will qualify for the discount memberships. The facility is located less than two blocks away from Community District 8, covering north Crown Heights.
In any case, only households earning less than twice the federal poverty level, or senior citizens, can qualify, according to BFC. About 41% of people in the area meet the income standard, according to census estimates — nearly 45,000.
Yet low-income memberships will be capped at just 250 total, BFC announced.
BFC’s director of community engagement, Eric Woodlin, says that the membership program will honor the 50% commitment Cumbo advertised, capping the total number of memberships to 500 in the first year.
“This is so we can navigate and assess what the fitness center’s capacity will be,” said Woodlin.
‘Nothing Was Ever Written’
The armory project will also ultimately include 415 apartments, with 250 set aside for households earning incomes currently no more than $64,440 for a family of three.
Cumbo has faced enduring backlash from activists who argue that the armory project will accelerate the area’s already heated gentrification.
Yet the Council member, who is term-limited out of office at the end of this year, kept championing the project even as pushback went on during construction in recent months.
“It’s going to be magnificent,” she said in May 2021.
She envisioned “Olympic gold medal winners” and World Cup competitors emerging among “thousands of young people” training at the facility.
“You’re going to see the crime rate in the neighborhood go down,” she predicted.
Cumbo now says the Council has no leverage to improve the community benefits package — in part because no formal documentation exists.
“There is no agreement,” she said. “Nothing was ever written.”
A spokesperson for the city Economic Development Corporation, which is leasing the armory property to BFC, told THE CITY earlier this month that the lease agreement contains commitments that include “incentivized community benefits especially for our youth.”
After a review by THE CITY turned up no such language in property records detailing the lease, EDC followed up with a different explanation of the pact for low-cost recreation at the Major Owens Center.
“The benefits are not in the lease but are part of a negotiation with the partners with community input,” said Helen Jonsen, an EDC spokesperson.
BFC laid out a complex list of promised discounts and other benefits in a recent email to reporters.
The developer said Imagine Swimming is committing to provide 9,000 swim lessons at $10 per half hour for residents of Community Board 9. The standard price remains $50 for each half-hour lesson, the same price the swim company charges in swanky Tribeca.
The pool will additionally offer “scholarship programs” for children attending local schools where the majority of students come from low-income families, the developer said.
Soccer clinics and lessons that normally cost $50 an hour will cost $10 for Community District 9 residents. And basketball clinics and leagues will be “free or low cost to participants and open to all,” according to BFC.
The Major Owens Center boasts a 15-member community advisory committee named by BFC.
The advisory committee’s chair, Joe Coello, told THE CITY he couldn’t speak to the discrepancy between Cumbo’s 2017 sweeping announcement and news of the limited number of discounted memberships.
“I’d have to go back and read what she wrote,” Coello said, adding: “2017 was a long time ago.”