Envisioning a New Cultural Landscape: Slow and Not-So-Steady Progress in the Bronx and Upper Manhattan

Andrew Toporoff

            In early February, reports emerged that developers partnering with New York City’s major league soccer team, New York City Football Club (NYCFC for short), had reached a non-binding agreement with the city and the New York Yankees, which are part owners of NYCFC, to build a new home stadium for the club in the South Bronx. Devised with significant input from the community, the proposed $1 billion-dollar project, anchored by the stadium, would also entail affordable housing (one of the developers, Maddd Equities, has built and owns about 3,000 affordable housing units in the Bronx), a hotel and retail stores, and a school. The development would replace underused parking garages, reducing the significant debt of the garages’ nonprofit managing company, as well as an elevator parts factory, which would be relocated elsewhere in the Bronx. A permanent home for NYCFC would be a relief to the club and its supporters. Since its inception as a joint venture between the Yankees and City Football Group, a holding company led by a member of the royal family of Abu Dhabi, NYCFC has played its home games at Yankee Stadium, but scheduling issues have frequently displaced games to other nearby locations. On February 26th, as Yankee Stadium underwent its winter preparations, NYCFC defeated a Costa Rican side in a “home” contest played in New Jersey, at the stadium of the club’s rival. Despite it being a major tournament game, a large number of fans protested the alternative venue by boycotting. If approval and construction move forward without delay, a new home stadium could see its first games in 2024.

            The community outreach which informed the NYCFC proposal is encouraging in terms of the likelihood of gaining approval, but the ongoing saga of another sports-related development in the Bronx gives a reason to be skeptical of the plan’s prospects. One block south of West 195th Street, on West Kingsbridge Road, is the Kingsbridge Armory, one of the world’s largest armories. Vacant since 1996, the armory has been the subject of numerous failed or rejected development proposals. In 2013, though, then-Mayor of New York Michael Bloomberg announced the city’s approval of a privately-funded $350 million dollar plan to transform the armory into the Kingsbridge National Ice Center (KNIC), a 750,000-square-foot ice sports complex featuring nine ice rinks. The project has stumbled along in a constant state of uncertainty ever since. Soon after City Council approved the plan, an internal battle broke out for control of the development group, KNIC Partners, which was resolved in court. Then, while the agreement between New York state and KNIC Partners was non-binding, allowing either side to walk away, the state cut the first installment of a construction loan it had authorized in half. Following that, KNIC Partners, which includes hockey legend and former New York Ranger Mark Messier, apparently could not secure enough initial financing to convince the city to turn over the lease to the armory. KNIC Partners has had to pledge additional money to support businesses and local students in order to win the last-minute support of the city councilman whose district includes the armory, has sued the de Blasio administration for conspiring to block the project, and has seen their proposal implicated in political clashes between the Cuomo and de Blasio administrations. KNIC Partners first sought to open by 2017; in April 2018, a Bronx community newspaper reported that it could be another ten months before ground was broken at the site. Though reporting on the status of the beleaguered project has fizzled out, the KNIC is still not yet operational.

            If and when the Bronx gets its ice rinks and soccer arena, the two sites will be located in parallel with two major arts institutions in upper Manhattan. At the top of Manhattan, in Fort Tryon Park, is the Met Cloisters, a pastiche of medieval architecture which houses a significant portion of the Met’s collection of medieval and Byzantine art, including the well-known Hunt of the Unicorn tapestry series and the celebrated Mérode Triptych. South of the Cloisters, on West 155thStreet, is the Hispanic Society of America, which is perhaps better known worldwide than in New York. The Society’s library and museum together hold a vast collection of about 750,000 objects, spanning the Paleolithic to the 20th Century, and covering Iberia, Latin America, and anywhere else where Spanish has ever been spoken; its museum department alone has a collection of over 18,000 objects, including multiple first-rate paintings by Velázquez, El Greco, and Goya. The museum has been closed for renovation since 2017 and is just beginning to reopen to the public in stages (during its renovation, the Society actually gained prominence by lending out its treasures on a traveling exhibition which stopped at the Prado, in Madrid, among other museums).

            Though the shadow of the KNIC hangs over the NYCFC plan, and the renovation of the Hispanic Society has been long, such projects may herald a revitalized cultural and recreational scene in the northern parts of New York City. What is particularly exciting is that each of these entities would be well-suited to engaging the public at a very local level. Geographically, the sites of the planned sports complexes and Yankee Stadium in the Bronx, and the museums in upper Manhattan, encompass a diverse but lower-income population. Just as Yankee Stadium is a cultural touchstone of New York and especially the Bronx, one would expect a new NYCFC stadium to become similarly important, given soccer’s worldwide popularity and that as of July 2018, immigrants make up 37 percent of the population in the borough. Provisions of KNIC’s operating agreement will enable local public school students and low-income individuals to access the facilities. And, even though the Hispanic Society is not a community museum (such as the Museo del Barrio on the Upper East Side, which shows work by artists from the local Puerto Rican community), the institution’s focus intimately ties it to the surrounding neighborhoods of Hamilton and Washington Heights, which have a majority Latino and Hispanic population. Both art and sport foster community, and the changes proposed in upper Manhattan and the Bronx could provide a tremendous boon directly to those who live there. There is reason for optimism, but progress is still far away.