February 22, 2012 at 5:58 AM
By Jeanmarie Evelly
There’s less than a month left for those vying to take over the Kingsbridge Armory to submit their proposals to the city, and a number of organizations have come forward with ideas for filling the long-vacant, 600,000-square-foot building.
Recently, a group of cycling enthusiasts who have been campaigning to turn the Armory into a giant bicycling center have teamed up with New York Gauchos, a Bronx-based youth basketball program, as well as several other sports-oriented groups, with the intent of converting the structure into an enormous sports, recreation and wellness center.
“There’s a lot of enthusiasm for our vision,” said Rocky Bucano, vice president for the Teamwork Foundation, Inc., the nonprofit that runs Gauchos. “They know the previous roadblocks were the pure retail plans, which were not a good fit for the community.”
It’s been two years since a previous plan to turn the building into a giant shopping mall was killed by the City Council after a tense political battle between the developer and local activists over wages. During his State of the City speech in the Bronx in January, Mayor Bloomberg announced that the city would once again be seeking pitches from developers interested in the Armory, with a deadline of March 22 for submitting proposals to the Economic Development Corporation.
The current Request for Proposals does not rule out the possibility of another mall project, though local activists and politicians have long-advocated for a more community-based use for the building.
Since last fall, the National Cycling Association (NCA) has been trying to raise money to build a velodrome inside the Armory — an angled, oval bicycle racing track — in the hopes of turning the space into the site of a 6-day professional bike racing event the group wants to host this spring.
That original plan was met with some skepticism from local activists. Desiree Pilgrim-Hunter, a member of the Kingsbridge Armory Redevlopment Alliance (KARA), a coalition of residents, clergy and community groups advocating for responsible development of the Armory, told the Norwood News in November that the NCA’s plan seemed to offer little benefit to the community.
“This is a temporary idea for next spring that does nothing for the surrounding community,” Pilgirm-Hunter said at the time. “They will make money, the community will not.”
Now, NCA is teaming up with New York Guachos, indoor rock-climbing gym Brooklyn Boulders, and a BMX skate group from Staten Island — under the umbrella name the Armory Sports and Entertainment Group — to submit a proposal for a massive recreational center that would offer a variety of sports programs for neighborhood residents, according to Bucano.
In addition to the proposed velodrome, the group’s vision includes a 5,000-seat sports arena, professional basketball courts, rock climbing walls, a skate park, a “hostel-style” hotel for visiting sports teams, sports medicine clinic and wellness center, Bucano said.
“This is all community focused,” he said. “We would offer low-cost youth programs where the kids could get training. We would have a recreation center open to the community, where they could get fitness work. The community programs are essential to what we’re doing.”
The coalition is in talks with a number of developers to finance the project, Bucano said, and is conducting a feasibility study to determine the plan’s economic viability.
The New York Gauchos has been operating since 1967, offering a competitive basketball program to hundreds of children and teens each year, with a focus on getting the students into college. The group has been working out of a gym in the South Bronx for the last several decades, Bucano said, but has long since outgrown the space.
“We’re kind of stretching at the seams over here,” he said.
Other sports groups have expressed their interest in setting up shop at the Amory. As the Norwood News reported last month, a group of investors — including New York Rangers star Mark Messier — want to turn the space into an ice rink and the region’s biggest hockey complex. World Changers Church International, an Atlanta-based, nondenominational parish led by television evangelical preacher Creflo Dollar, has also been eyeing the space, and sent several representative to a walk-through of the site earlier this month, according to Crain’s New York.
But to Bucano, basketball is a natural fit for the Bronx.
“I’m not against hockey but I don’t know anyone in that neighborhood who plays hockey. It’s like putting a round peg in a square hole,” he said. “Basketball is a very cheap game to play. It’s the sport of New York City. But I’m biased.”