The Uptown Dispatch | February 11, 1994
By Henry Canter
Thanks largely to a renewed vote of confidence from the new administration of Mayor elect Giuliani, the controversial Fort Washington Armory tower plan, that would graft a high rise housing project building atop the westernmost quarter of that block square homeless shelter facility on 168th St. should be ready to commence very soon, according to Dagmaris Cabezas, the Director of the Community Development office of the Committee for Heights-Inwood Homeless, that is sponsoring the enterprise.
If you recall my story on this project in last year’s February edition, there were a number of problems and issues surrounding the proposed Armory tower plan, including, where the city could find the $40 million to fund such a project? What impact would it have on the environment in its immediate area? What was to be done with the over 1000 homeless clients currently in the Armory shelter?? And, how would the vast interior floors of this mammoth structure be divided up among the various and often politically well connected community organizations, scrambling for “first dibs” on these much desired spaces?
In a recent interview with Ms. Cabezas, she described to me in her view how in the past year the project has crystallized into a financially feasible and more democratic undertaking.
“Mr. Giuliani and his administration have been very impressed with this project, with the strong community support for it and its cost effectiveness. It will be financed by a loan from the city that will generate some 7 million dollars low income in tax credits and deductions for the large city corporations investing in it, which will create a large reserve fund for operating and maintaining the building and adjacent Community Resource Center in the Armory.
“The Armory tower will have on its ground floor a series of commercial retail stores which will be accessible through the Fort Washington Ave. sector of the Armory building, which will remain architecturally intact in its present form. These commercial stores will be priced at the current market rate, and by doing so, this will generate enough additional money and low income tax credits to allow us to rent the spaces inside the rest of the Armory building for the community center at half the market rate. It is this ‘cost difference’ that was among the things that impressed Mr. Giuliani most about this project,” Ms. Cabezas explained.
One of the main sticking points that held up this enterprise under the Dinkins’ administration was the question of what to do with the large homeless population that had occupied the Armory shelter for well over a decade. Under the former mayor’s regime the HRA wanted to retain part of the interior spaces of the soon to be transformed Armory community center as a marginal 200 bed facility for the homeless for an ongoing and indefinite amount of time into the future. Now, with the mayor-elect Giuliani’s help, the Coalition for Heights-Inwood Homeless should be able to find up to 150 replacement beds for the homeless outside the Armory in a variety of rehabilitated SRO hotels and other facilities, keeping perhaps only 50 beds in the Armory’s interior, it any at all. Currently, the Armory houses 200 homeless, moved down from the third floor to a new renovated area on the main floor.
“It’s not enough just to maintain bed space for the homeless,” Dagmaris observed. “You have to provide intensive counseling and transitional, not permanent, tenant spaces for the homeless so that they can receive the guidance, training and skills to get jobs and become productive members of society and get out of their current lifestyle. Many of the homeless currently residing in the Armory have been living there for seven, eight years or more,” he said.
Moving onto how the Armory interior areas will be divided up, Ms. Cabezas enumerated the types of spaces that CHIH wants to see installed there.
“Basically,” Cabezas says, “we want to have a youth center, a community theatre, an art exhibition space, and a so called ‘incubation space’ which would give guidance and technical assistance to groups of immigrant citizens businesspeople, and for fledgling community organizations made up of immigrants and people new to this city and our community.
“We feel this is very important to provide an entry level counseling facility so that these newcomers can learn the ropes of how community services work and how they can best utilize them, how to apply for funding, grants, what the basic by laws are for incorporating themselves, etc., and in general how immigrants can get their business organizations off the ground.
“We also have incorporated a certain degree of flexible spaces in the Armory interior’s design, so called ‘black box’ areas which can be enlarged via movable walls and ceilings into larger spaces for special receptions, functions, and other things.”
As to which community organizations would be getting first crack at spaces in the Armory Community Resource Center, Ms. Cabezas assured The Dispatch that the selection process and priorities will be determined by an advisory board set up by the CHIH that will be impartial and immune to influence by community politics as usual.
Even now, she told me, work is being done inside the Armory in preparation for the incoming community center facility, including the construction of office spaces and large scale asbestos removal work in progress.
The high rise rdidential tower building itself that will be grafted onto the westernmost quarter of the massive Armory building is the one aspect of the project that had generated the most controversy especially among local residents and some community activists. Many not only felt that it would not only be an intrusive presence visually and esthetically, but also that its raison d’etre was to cater to middle and upper income tenants and not to provide much needed housing for the poor and immigrant community population as was originally promised.
Besides these reservations, concerned residents and activists had also called f0r a detailed environmental impact statement from CHIH on this project to be presented to our area’s Community Board 12, whose offices are one block down from the proposed building site. There was the key question as to just how big this high rise was really going to be.
Ms. Cabezas admitted that they still had not finished the environmental statement, but assured me that one would be ready very soon to be presented to CB12 for its upcoming ULURP (Land Use Review Program) on this matter. She also explained the qualifying income for potential Armory tower tenants.
According to Ms. Cabezas, “We have set as the cutoff for tenant income, classified for low to moderate as below or up to $25,000 a year per family, which would apply to 80% of the tenants according to HPD guidelines. The remaining 20% of the apartments would be for tenants earning middle incomes of between $25,000-$45,000 per year.
“There are, of course, a lot of nonimmigrant community residents who make below $25,000 per year, teachers, recent grad college students, and many interns and nurses, employees of Columbia Presbyterian Medical Center across the street.
“I want to point out that our project has the full support of local union 1199 (for hospital workers) as well as all of our elected officials, business organizations, Borough President Ruth Messinger, and all of our local clergy, besides Mayor Giuliani’s office of course.
“In terms of the architectural plans for the tower, that has changed since last year. It’s down from the originally planned 275 apartments to 200 apartments presently. The high rise is still being reconfigured. For example we could fit more apartments in a planned 20 story tower by making them smaller and we want to look at a lot of other things, environmental impact included, and more community input, give and take before we decide on the tower’s final design.”
The tower will be built up through the surrounding walls of the Armory and will have very deep foundations. But what really makes the Armory tower unique, Dagmaris wanted to emphasize, is that, Like the Armory Community Resource Center, there will be a social support system of offices and counselors as a major component in the building’s interior make up.
Cabezas commented, “We know from experience with residents coming into the inner city communities such as Heights-Inwood that this resettling process, especial for immigrants new to this city, is fraught with many problems, economic and social, for all these recent newcomers: Dominican, Mexicans, Korean, Russian, Phillipino, and so many others.
“By incorporating these support services into a high rise complex that will have a large percentage of immigrant tenants, we provide an environment that is attuned to their needs, that will give them information and guidance on all levels. In that sense, the Armory Tower project is truly unique,” Ms. Cabezas concluded.
Most of the particulars for both the high rise “graft” and the community resource center at the Armory should be hammered out by late spring and by early summer. CHIH believes the Community Resource Center in the Armory should be underway in construction, while the high rise tower will be built sometime later, when all of its logistics are worked out to everyone’s satisfaction.