Crown Heights residents first heard the promise years ago: The transformation of a vacant, city-owned armory into housing and a community center would give local families access to low-cost recreation.
But as Brooklyn’s former Bedford Union Armory readies to reopen in the coming weeks as the Major R. Owens Health and Wellness Community Center, early signs show sky-high prices at its swimming pool.
Imagine Swimming, the outfit set to teach swimming at the competition-length pool, is advertising 30-minute lessons for $50 each, on top of a $50 registration fee, for a group class of up to four. That’s the same rate Imagine offers for lessons at its two flagship locations in Manhattan’s Tribeca and Upper West Side.
THE CITY found 30-minute lessons for as little as $30 in other parts of Brooklyn.
“Fifty dollars for 30 minutes is very steep, especially for low-income families…. I can’t afford that,” said Tashawna Hylton, 40, who said she’d like to sign up her 9-year-old son.
Imagine’s prices go up to $100 per half-hour for a semi-private class with two kids, and $200 for a private session, accoring to the company’s website.
The nonprofit facility operator brought in by developer BFC Partners, The Boys’ Club of New York, promotes $5 annual memberships for young men at its community centers in East Harlem and Flushing, Queens, including swimming lessons.
The group has not yet announced membership rates for the new armory pool and gym facilities, and did not follow through on a scheduled interview with THE CITY to discuss the plan.
Some local school kids will be offered swim lessons at a steep discount, says Imagine, though details are still not available.
Affordable young people’s swimming lessons have become a scarce commodity, following the second summer in a row in which the city’s Department of Parks and Recreation has cancelled its free summer learn-to-swim programs at public pools due to COVID cuts.
Local Crown Heights parents say the advertised price will prevent them from enrolling their children in classes at the Bedford Avenue armory.
Joel Mead, 38, said he never bought the promise that redeveloping the 118-year-old armory would benefit his majority Black, working-class neighborhood.
“When they say they’re gonna give us something, it’s always questionable,” said Mead, whose 10-year-old son wants to learn how to swim. “Nobody really believes it.”
‘Truly Affordable and Accessible’
When City Councilmember Laurie Cumbo voted in favor of the 2017 armory redevelopment deal, she received backlash from local activists who argued the project would accelerate the displacement of longtime residents.
At the time, Cumbo promised use of the recreation center would be within financial reach for local families. She “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,” reads a press release issued by her office.
Cumbo told THE CITY that shifting COVID guidelines are making the logistics of opening and operating the center “highly complicated.” But she promised that community discounts that “coincide and connect” with safety protocols will be available when the doors open.
A spokesperson for the BFC Partners didn’t specify a debut date but said plans are underway for a “soft opening” this month.
“We are wrapping up construction and tenants are currently moving in as we finalize preparations,” said the spokesperson, Matthew Costantini. “Our plan is to schedule a larger-scaled community ceremony next month.”
A spokesperson for the city Economic Development Corp., which leased the city property to BFC Partners for 99 years, said an agreement with the developer “incentivized community benefits especially for our youth.”
Also part of the deal: requiring “hundreds of affordable housing and mixed-income apartments” and “extensive community engagement on the project.”
BFC Partners didn’t answer questions regarding any affordability commitments in its agreement with EDC, nor did it address inquiries about local community memberships.
“There will be information sessions and more specifics to the memberships, affordability and programming coming soon,” Costantini said.
Serving Up Scholarships
Brenden O’Melveny, Imagine’s chief aquatics officer, said that while discounts are not currently advertised, the swimming company is hatching a “scholarship” program for children who attend nearby schools where the majority of students come from low-income families.
“We’re going to partner with District 17, Title 1 schools, and have set up a system where they’ll be referring families to us to participate in our after-school lessons,” O’Melveny said, noting the mechanics of the system haven’t been nailed down yet. “And we may look into other other avenues as well, but we’re going to see how that one goes first.”
Scholarship recipients will receive an 80% discount from Imagine’s market rate, dropping the cost of a 30-minute lesson to $10 per child, O’Melveny said. But it was unclear how many scholarships would be provided.
“We’re still working to figure out how to implement the community benefits side of things, and I think we’re getting close to that now,” he said. “We just didn’t want to release information if we didn’t have all the details sorted out.”
He said on Thursday Imagine hopes to release additional details “within the next week or so.”
O’Melveny told THE CITY the pool is expected to open Sept. 20.
October Grand Opening
EDC said it’s aiming for a highly visible debut next month.
“A grand opening event will be held in October to help get the word out to the community about the affordable and accessible programs and services made available at” the center, said Helen Jonsen, an EDC spokesperson.
The 60,000-square-foot center is set to house three basketball courts, a multi-use field, indoor swimming pool, fitness center and space for boxing and archery. Local nonprofits, including Ifetayo Cultural Arts Academy, Digital Girl, Inc. and Brooklyn Community Pride Center, are set to occupy office spaces within the building.
In addition to Boys’ Club of New York, which is serving as the center’s recreational operator, BFC hired Globall Sports to oversee the multi-use field, while New Heights Youth will be responsible for basketball courts.
Mead said if his son doesn’t get discounted swim lessons, he may wind up paying full-price and “just skipping lunch for the next two weeks.” He added that swimming is an important “survival skill,” one that he’s determined to afford his child.
“Most minorities don’t know how to swim,” Mead said. “It’s sad because we don’t have access.”