Builders head to city’s armories

The city has finally heeded the call to arms — or rather, to armories.

For decades, builders have hungrily eyed the development potential of these fortress-like structures around the five boroughs. The New York National Guard only uses six of the 20 surviving buildings now, but other uses for the hulking, castle-like properties have been blocked by politics.

The bureaucratic logjam is clearing, though, and the Kingsbridge Armory in the Bronx, the Park Slope Armory in Brooklyn and the Seventh Regiment Armory in Manhattan will be transformed by developers working with the New York City Economic Development Corporation. The nonprofit group promotes private sector participation in real estate and other economic projects. Although parts of the Manhattan and Brooklyn buildings are now used as homeless shelters, planners believe the properties can be used more efficiently.

Nancy Todd, an architectural historian with the state’s Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation and author of “New York’s Historic Armories: An Illustrated History,” said the size of armories makes them attractive to potential developers.

“The spaces are just so enormous, a developer can build just about anything they want within their walls,” she said.

In the five boroughs, 37 armories were built over the years for New York State’s volunteer militia. In addition to the six still used by the National Guard, 16 were demolished as the Guard’s presence in the city became less important. Among the 15 remaining buildings the Guard has relinquished, some are owned by the state and others are owned by the city. A few are privately owned or vacant. Only traces of others remain, such as the Squadron A Armory on Madison Avenue between East 94th and East 95th streets. Only one wall still stands, connecting it to the public school whose construction was the impetus for its demolition in 1966.

Like the castle in “Sleeping Beauty,” the huge Kingsbridge Armory, which fills the entire block between Kingsbridge Road and 195th Street and Reservoir and Jerome avenues, is poised to spring back to life with a developer’s touch in the most ambitious armory renovation currently planned. Atlantic Development Group, the Related Companies and Rosenshein Associates have all bid to develop the 575,000-square-foot armory at 29 West Kingsbridge Road.

Though the city development agency has not released details of the plans, the Atlantic Development Group design was recently made public by developer Peter Fine. The project would include a public school for 2,000 students; a 57,200-square-foot YMCA; between 13,000 and 25,000 square feet of community space; and a retail portion with a department store, a movie theater and a parking garage.

The competition has Bronx connections as well. The Related Companies, best known for developing the Time Warner Center in Manhattan, is building the new Gateway Center retail plaza at the site of the former Bronx Terminal Market. And Rosenshein Associates has developed retail centers in both Co-op City and New Rochelle.

The redevelopment of the Kingsbridge Armory will represent the first foray into a retail format for these historic structures, although some armories have been transformed for a range of uses. An armory in White Plains was converted to residential apartments in the early 1980s, and some armories have been used as part-time movie studios. The Kingsbridge Armory recently did temporary cinematic duty as the backdrop for the zombie thriller “I Am Legend,” starring Will Smith.

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The proposal for the Kingsbridge Armory was drafted with help from community groups and local elected officials, who pushed for new schools in the surrounding area and a guarantee that a percentage of the workforce hired at the site come from the community. In an effort to thwart Wal-Mart and other big-box stores from occupying the site, the proposal also includes a preference for retailers that would pay a living wage of at least $10 per hour. The agency didn’t offer a timeline for when a developer will be chosen, and it has required bidders, politicians and others involved in the process to sign confidentiality agreements.

The city took control of the Kingsbridge Armory 11 years, ago and for many years it seemed the site’s potential would be squandered. Mayor Rudolph Giuliani proposed a shopping center for the site in the late 1990s, but the plan was killed after City Council members and community leaders complained the proposal would not include space for new public schools. It figured into plans for the city’s bid for the 2012 Olympics, and it has been floated as the site of a massive school complex as well.

Bronx Borough President Adolfo Carrion Jr. said the rebirth of the Kingsbridge Armory could serve as a model for similar sites across the nation. “This revamping of the armory, if done correctly, will serve as a model for the adaptive reuse of historic buildings throughout the entire country,” he said.

But in Brooklyn no one is waiting to see what happens in Kingsbridge. After nearly three years, the Fourteenth Regiment Armory located at 1402 Eighth Avenue between 14th and 15th streets in Park Slope, which currently houses a small women’s shelter, is close to the end of a $16 million project to transform the building into a long-awaited modernized athletic complex. The building will accommodate a long list of sports, including basketball, gymnastics, tennis, weightlifting and track and field. It will be run by a private company after the city selects a vendor. The opening is scheduled for September. The women’s shelter will remain in the building, and a nearby public school will use the complex as a gym.

On the Upper East Side of Manhattan, the landmarked Seventh Regiment Armory at 640 Park Avenue, between East 66th and 67th streets, has attracted development rumors for years. Last year, the word on the street was that the site would become a residential development, but that no longer appears to be the case.

In November, the Seventh Regiment Armory Conservancy, a nonprofit preservation group, signed a 99-year lease for the property, which currently serves as home to a women’s shelter and several major arts and antique shows. Beginning in 2008, the Conservancy hopes to put $150 million into the renovation of the armory to create a visual and performing arts space.

Though some community members, including filmmaker Woody Allen, objected to this use of the Seventh Regiment Armory because of the residential character of the surrounding neighborhood, the Conservancy is moving forward with plans to host more art shows and other cultural events at the site.

At least one other armory could go from gun racks to gentrified space. The Atlantic Armory in Brooklyn at 1322 Bedford Avenue between Atlantic Avenue and Pacific Street, which is also home to a homeless shelter, is considered a prime piece of potential real estate. Several plans to renovate it for use as a community center were floated a few years ago, but the city hasn’t acted on them.

Proponents of the swords-to-sprinting-tracks model of redevelopment can look to the 168th Street Armory in Washington Heights as a model of success. In 1997, the city turned the building into a world-class track and field center with a six-lane, 200-meter track with an Olympic-quality surface. Once a dingy homeless shelter, the site now plays host to some of the biggest athletic events in the United States. Todd said this is one of the best ways to bring these armories into the present without sacrificing their storied pasts, even if it doesn’t maximize potential tax revenue for the city.

“They are important local landmarks, monuments to the role of the militia in national history,” said Todd. “The most successful reuses of these armories have been for community and civic use.”