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Washington Heights Armory on Defense Over Who Gets to Use Space

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The Fort Washington Avenue Armory, March 9, 2021.

Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

In an era when space equals safety, the Fort Washington Avenue Armory offers some of the most enviable elbow room in Upper Manhattan.

The expansive 250,000-square-foot building plays host to a wide array of activities, most recently serving as a mass vaccination site and perhaps most famously as a facility for international track and field events, run by the nonprofit The Armory Foundation.

But how the facility is used — and who makes those decisions — is not always clear, becoming a growing point of contention in the neighborhood, especially as the city’s slow crawl out of the pandemic creates new demands on public space.

The Armory Foundation has used the building for events including fashion shows, film shoots and weddings, according to its website. Neighborhood organizations have said for years they’ve been priced out the sprawling 1911 armory building.

And an ongoing 2018 lawsuit from Growth and Development Services (GDS) — a group that claims it was wrongly evicted from the space — says the Foundation failed to pay as much as $412,000 in taxes on income it earned from event rentals.

“The problem is, the Armory Foundation has been licensing entities with no right to do so,” said Ayisha Oglivie, a Washington Heights local and member of Community Board 12 since 2013 who has pushed for answers about the governance of the armory for years.

The original 19-year-old license agreement between the Armory Foundation and the city Department of Homeless Services — which owns the building and maintains a men’s shelter there — appears to back Oglivie’s claim.

The 2002 document, acquired by a Freedom of Information Law request made by researcher Phil Zablocki and reviewed by THE CITY, states the foundation is allowed to “enter upon and use the premises only for the purpose of operating an indoor track and athletic facility” as well as an athletic Hall of Fame “and for no other purpose.”

Despite that language, however, the Foundation regularly conducts space and event rentals. The group’s website showcases seven different spaces and rooms — ranging from a 65,000-square-foot drill hall space to a 1,100-square-foot boardroom — available for rent to “support the services and programs of this great non-profit institution.”

The lawsuit from GDS outlines rentals by VH1, Bravo, AT&T and the Food Network. Steven Czik, GDS’ attorney, said in a statement the foundation “has been improperly profiting at the expense of the greater Washington Heights community, depriving area youth of a center originally designated specifically for their benefit.”

‘What Is the Usage?’

In an emailed response to THE CITY, Nick Nicholas, foundation spokesperson, said the suit “is without merit.” The foundation has filed to dismiss it, according to court documents.

Nicholas said the foundation is “in full compliance” regarding licensing, pointing to a 2019 letter from DHS administrator Josyln Carter in which she stated the group continues to “demonstrate their commitment to being a good neighbor and community member.”

To Oglivie, the current usage of the public building is frustrating, especially when so many people and groups in the neighborhood could benefit from the space. She was first struck by how much of the building was empty when she went to use a computer lab there in summer of 2013.

Some neighbors think the Washington Heights armory should be more accessible to the community.

Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

“It’s crickets in there on a regular basis, especially when it’s not track season,” she said. “What is the maximum capacity of that building? What is the maximum potential of service that that building could be giving to a community in need?”

Getting specific figures on unused space in the building as well as a clear answer on what guidelines exist, if any, to utilize and operate the building are among a list of questions CB12 first sent to DHS about the armory in 2019.

Two years later, the board has not received a reply. At a March 4 health and human services committee meeting of the community board, a representative of DHS, Leilani Irvin, was set to speak. Oglivie, a committee member, had hoped she would finally get some answers.

But Irvin said she could not speak about “the governance piece” and was unable to provide any concrete answers about the building’s usage.

“Our legal team and, I believe, the Armory [Foundation] and DHS are all in close communication, working and ironing out those specific details, but I’m not — I’m not able to speak to that in depth, but I’m here in a listening capacity, and here to take notes,” Irvin said.

After years of pushing for answers, Oglivie was fed up, telling Irvin in the video-conference meeting that the agency’s reply was “unacceptable.”

“What are the outcomes that we’re seeing from the building? What is the usage? What is the usage for specific spaces within the building? What does the license allow to be happening there?” she said. “We’ve had multiple meetings here around this issue and a four-page resolution that was generated out of this committee.… And you come to say that you’re here to take notes. You don’t have answers.”

“I don’t,” Irvin said.

‘Dropped the Ball’

According to Zablocki, the researcher who co-founded a nonprofit through which he has documented issues at the armory, the agency has a pattern of not communicating well about the issues at the armory. He has asked questions of the agency many times over the years, sending emails and certified letters, but rarely gets a reply.

“They are not very responsive to these issues,” he said. “They have dropped the ball.”

A spokesperson for DHS, Isaac McGinn, did not address similar questions from THE CITY, including whether the Armory Foundation is currently in compliance with its licensing agreement, what the process is for outside entities to access space in the building, the allegations in GDS’ lawsuit or how the agency audits or oversees the building.

In a written statement, McGinn simply said the agency coordinates with the foundation “to make this vital community space available to a range of community groups to provide a range of community services as requested and as appropriate.”

That includes the shelter, after-school and track and field programs, and the recent vaccination effort.

The armory has been used as a vaccine distribution center.

Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

“The city appreciates the site’s ongoing commitment to community service and we are especially thankful for how they’ve risen to the challenge during this challenging period,” he wrote.

Part of the challenge for Oglivie of getting answers through the community board is that many of her colleagues there have close ties to the armory and the foundation. A longtime member of the board, for example, is close friends with the foundation’s co-president, she said. Another CB12 member is the foundation’s chief administrative officer.

Maria Luna, a CB12 member of 36 years and a member of the foundation’s board of directors, came to the defense of the organization in the March 4 committee meeting, saying she has “seen the benefits of the armory in our community. I have seen the work that we have done,” especially when it comes to education.

“It’s very unfair to have, every time that we are here, resolutions coming and going and questioning and pointing fingers,” she said.

“We are open. We are very transparent. We made mistakes before — [it] doesn’t mean that we are actually doing anything wrong. The armory is beautiful,” she added.

‘Tremendously Accessible’

Nicholas, the foundation spokesperson, said the organization “routinely provides no-cost and low-cost space to community nonprofit organizations,” and also runs no-cost education and athletic programs to hundreds of local children, including the Armory College Prep program for high and middle schoolers, CityTrack, Little Feet and Tiny Feet.

The foundation also opened up the building for early voting in the last presidential election, provided classroom space to the Department of Education’s Learning Labs program for remote and hybrid learning, and offered “maximum space” toward the New York State vaccination effort there.

“With more than 300,000 visitors each year, the armory is tremendously accessible,” he said.

With no answers about how much more the building could be offering, however, Zablocki and Oglivie are not satisfied.

Zablocki, who grew up in Washington Heights and volunteered with sports programs for local kids for years, knows the track and field programs are “a great outlet for youth. But he but hopes someday to see the armory return to something closer to what then-Mayor David Dinkins once proposed: a community center.

“I just want to see the community get their fair share — reasonable access to the building,” he said.

As it stands, Oglivie sees the building as “a nonprofit using a city resource as a corporate Airbnb to funnel money into their bank accounts … to the exclusion of the community, which is predominantly Black and brown people,” she said.

“What is missing is proper oversight,” she added.

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