The beleaguered project to convert the Kingsbridge Armory into the world’s largest ice skating center overcame a major financing hurdle as residents and community leaders backed a multi-million-dollar state loan for developers at a hearing.
The state-mandated hearing represents a return to square one for backers of the Kingsbridge National Ice Center (KNIC), an expected to be state-of-the-art ice rink that is estimated to cost $353 million. Since receiving the green light from the New York City Council in December 2013, the project has languished in delays, with construction at the Armory yet to begin.
At the Oct. 12 hearing, residents sounded off on the Empire State Development (ESD) Corporation’s approval of a $138 million loan to KNIC. The 30-year state loan would carry a seven percent annual interest rate and is earmarked to finance the first phase of the ice center’s construction. Support for the state loan was nearly unanimous as residents attending the hearing expressed relief that, despite delays, KNIC was now a crucial step closer to reality.
This most recent hearing also took on a less combative tone than in January 2016 when the ESD convened a similar hearing that focused instead on a $30 million loan for which KNIC had applied. During the 2016 hearing, members of the People Power Movement, a progressive social justice group, slammed KNIC’s developers for potentially hastening the displacement of residents in their communities.
This time, with KNIC now seeking the full amount for the first phase of construction, the process was forced to restart anew. At the hearing, several members of Community Board 7 (CB7) – which also had formally approved the project in 2013 – were on hand and in favor.
Edgar Ramos, a 40-year resident and chair of CB7’s Traffic and Transportation Committee, testified that he hopes “that ESD is able to provide the money so that we can provide a positive venue…into this neighborhood.” Reverend Ralph Beck, another CB7 member, hailed the ice center as “a long time coming” and a welcome attraction that would help keep young people out of trouble. CB7 chair Adeline Walker-Santiago joined in on the chorus of praise and referred to KNIC as “a spark” for the Bronx.
“[KNIC] represents… an opportunity to do good for our community, to do good for the future generations,” said Pastor Tim English of the Bronx Christian Fellowship Church who testified before ESD officials. “So, we implore you, we ask you to do whatever is in your power to make this happen.”
Never About Ice
Should the project finally be completed, it would activate the community benefits agreement (CBA) that was hammered out between community stakeholders and developers. Consequently, for some in attendance, the ice center was not what they were optimistic about, but rather the CBA.
Among other provisions, the CBA stipulates that all KNIC-created jobs must pay a $10 hourly living wage with benefits (an $11.50 hourly wage without benefits), that a majority of those jobs go to Bronxites, and that 52,000 square feet be set aside for community space.
Sandra Lobo, the executive director of the Northwest Bronx Community & Clergy Coalition, spoke highly of the CBA and maintained that “there is no precedent for a CBA like this – a legally-binding CBA – that brings such powerful benefits to our community.” According to a 2013 report by HR&A Advisors, the ice center is estimated to earmark $1 billion into the community’s economy.
“It isn’t about the ice,” testified Desiree Pilgrim-Hunter, cofounder of the Kingsbridge Armory Redevelopment Alliance—the consortium of organizations that successfully negotiated the CBA. “The Kingsbridge Armory project represents the economic reinvestment we need to begin the process of providing the… opportunity secured by the CBA.”
State Senator Gustavo Rivera, whose district overlaps with the Armory and has been one of the project’s biggest advocates, appeared to agree with that assessment. “As soon as the lease comes over, the community benefits agreement goes into effect, which is why I’ve always been supportive of it. This has never been about ice for me,” Rivera told the Norwood News during a recess in testimony.
Yet, obtaining the lease has shown itself to be one of the biggest challenges the project has faced.
The city-owned Kingsbridge Armory is managed by the New York City Economic Development Corporation (NYCEDC), which operates as the city’s realtor. Despite it being nearly four years after its initial approval, KNIC has still failed to obtain the lease from NYCEDC.
In part, KNIC struggled to demonstrate to the NYCEDC that it had raised the required construction funds by the mutually-agreed March 2016 deadline, at which point, KNIC managed to secure $30 million in private funds – covering only a fraction of the project’s phase one costs.
This led to a protracted legal dispute between the two sides, leaving the 99-year lease to the Armory in escrow. City officials defended their decision to withhold the lease, seeking to avoid a situation in which KNIC abandons the project prior to its completion.
In September 2016, KNIC attempted to resolve the dispute by offering to purchase the Armory outright from the city, but the NYCEDC refused. The deadlock between the two sides prompted Governor Andrew Cuomo to intervene and publicly announce the state’s commitment to provide the full $138 million to KNIC. Earlier this year, amid anticipation that the state would come through with the loan, Mayor Bill de Blasio reportedly indicated that the city was ready to turn over the lease to KNIC once they had received the state’s loan.
In a statement, ESD spokesperson Amy Varghese said on the matter that “the state has always been committed to revitalizing the long-vacant Kingsbridge Armory… [and] the recent approval of $138 million for this project further affirms that commitment.”
Even so, a couple of residents, while not opposed to the ice center, remained skeptical of KNIC’s ability to follow through with the project’s development.
Samelys Lopez, a community activist and former CB7 member, told ESD representatives that KNIC’s financial difficulties did not give her “confidence that the first phase of the project will be completed even if the city moves forward with the lease transfer.”
Meanwhile, community member Aldo Perez voiced similar concerns and said that the state needs to “make sure that they have the correct funding so they can manage it continuously to its complete fate.” Perez also noted that “the same faces [he sees] at every other meeting are here, but the new faces in our community are not… We need to be transparent.”
After assessing the public comments received at the hearing, the Public Authorities Control Board (PACB), a five-member board of gubernatorial appointees, will discuss the loan and, with Cuomo’s support, likely give its final stamp of approval. It is unclear when exactly such a decision will be made.
According to the ESD’s general project plan, the first phase of the ice center is slated to be completed in late 2020 (assuming that there are no further delays) – three years behind its originally-scheduled completion date.
“This has been a long road with KNIC,” said Benjamin Arana, a business representative for Local Union 3 IBEW. “We’re for the project and we’d like to see the project go forward because it’s long needed and long overdue.”
Editor’s Note: As of press time, it has been 1,415 days since the New York City Council approved the development of the Kingsbridge National Ice Center.