Alexis Clements is a writer focused on the arts, philosophy, nature, and city life. She is currently working on a documentary film about the physical spaces where queer women gather.
Here’s how to reimagine these sprawling facilities as community hubs.
Just a block and a half away from where I live in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, is the Bedford Union Armory, which for a few years now has been sitting largely unused. Turned over by the state to the City of New York in 2013, this massive, 110-year-old former National Guard facility appears from the outside to be headed toward quiet dereliction, but in fact, it’s now the epicenter of a major development fight in one of the most rapidly gentrifying neighborhoods in New York City. Like hundreds of other armories around the country, finding the right kind of re-use for the site—plus the money, will, and community support to move forward—is proving challenging.
The current plan for this particular armory involves a private developer retrofitting the space to include a recreation center, a community complex, a mix of non-profit and commercial rental space, and housing. On the surface, this seems like a reasonable re-purposing of the 138,000-square-foot site, ensuring the kind of diverse uses and income streams necessary to convert and maintain the enormous structure. But the project is being pitched to the community as a trade off: you only get the community and recreation centers if we also build luxury housing. While 20 percent of the condos and 50 percent of the rental units in the current proposal are classified as affordable, their designation has come under scrutiny given the actual incomes of area residents. Add to that questions about whether the site will employ union workers and concerns about who will afford to make use of the recreation and community centers, and you’ve got a prescription for a fight over this project.
The challenge of re-making armories in a way that local communities will support is likely familiar to many U.S. cities. With a huge boom in armory construction in the early 1900s, the majority of these spaces have now entered their second century and are in need of a new life. In 2000, the National Trust for Historic Preservation and the National Guard Bureau released a report offering advice and encouragement for communities considering re-use of these white elephants. (Among other things, the report recommended involving passionate groups of local citizens in the process, and tapping multiple organizations to help redevelop these large-scale projects.) But before leaping into the future, it’s worth taking a quick step back to understand how so many cities ended up with massive military facilities at their centers in the first place.
Most of the armories built in the U.S. were initially intended to provide year-round training, storage, and social facilities for local militias, which didn’t become formally organized as the National Guard until well into the 20th century. It was no coincidence that many of the armories built in cities like New York and Cincinnati were designed to appear fortress-like. The years before and after 1900 saw some of the most intense and violent labor, race, and class struggles the U.S. has experienced, and it was often local militias who were called upon to quash the violence in the midst of these clashes.
These city-bound strongholds also served their communities in other ways over the years. When not being used by militias, the buildings, which were typically the largest indoor spaces in their cities, frequently served as sites for everything from dances to fairs to boxing matches and art exhibitions. Into the second half of the 20th century, armories continued to be used by National Guard units and local communities, including being pressed into service as shelters during natural disasters.
Today, armories rarely serve their original purpose, remaining under-utilized or entirely unused as the Guard seeks to shed these costly facilities. The structures often come with serious drawbacks ranging from toxic construction materials like lead and asbestos to the need for extensive retrofits to accommodate accessibility requirements. That said, because armories were built like fortresses, they have often stood the test of time. Because ownership is often offered to cities much below market rate, armories present intriguing opportunities.
With the armory in my own neighborhood such a site of conflict, I was curious to find redevelopment projects that seem to have gotten it right—benefitting existing residents from a range of incomes and focusing on community benefit instead of lining developers’ pockets.
Park Slope Armory: Brooklyn, NY
When it was transferred to the city in first half of the 1990s, the Park Slope Armory, which stands 2 miles away from the Bedford Union Armory, initially served as a homeless shelter (a recurring theme in armories around the country). When early renovations by a group focused on providing sports fields for city youth fell through, the city’s Department of Homeless Services took over the redevelopment of the entire property, with a local task force of representatives from nearby block associations providing community input on the project. Today, the facility houses a women’s homeless shelter operated by the non-profit CAMBA. It also includes a large recreational facility operated by New York City’s YMCA that is available to local public schools, as well as a military veteran’s museum operated by Tom Miskel, who provides space in the museum’s room for veterans services ranging from AA meetings to counseling to technology classes. In addition, the old drill hall now occupied by the YMCA served as an emergency shelter during Hurricane Sandy in 2012, with over 600 people making use of the facility after the storm, some for as long as four weeks.
Miskel, who is a longtime Park Slope resident and served on the Armory Task Force, says the majority of the redevelopment funds came from the city and state. And today, a wide swath of the local community makes use of the space, from public school kids to local residents to nearby veterans to those in the shelter. Though Miskel indicated that some spaces in the cavernous building remain unused, such as the old shooting range in the subbasement and the Officer’s Club in the head house, he felt the project was a “perfect fit for the neighborhood.”
Dawson Armory & Community Building: Dawson, Minnesota
Not far from the center of Dawson, Minnesota, sits another example of a mixed-use redevelopment. In 1992, with help from the state, 12 different Minnesota towns, including Dawson, were offered the chance to buy recently decommissioned National Guard facilities for only $1 each. Many Dawson residents wanted to preserve the space for local use: For much of its history, dating back to the 1920s, it served dual purposes as both a military facility and a community gathering place for everything from basketball games to dances. After a few years of trying out different ideas and tenants, the town landed on relocating the local library to this much larger facility, and adding 10 affordable apartments for seniors. In addition, space upstairs and downstairs from the library offers room for art, local artifacts, and community meetings and events. Though it’s much smaller than the Brooklyn armories, coming in at just under 30,000 square feet, the combination of elements in the Dawson armory fulfilled a need for accessible housing and offered a new home for a much-loved community institution.
Peterborough Community Center: Peterborough, NH
Many armories possess a commercial kitchen, or at least the space and plumbing for them. These can be prized assets in cities: They can be used for everything from large events to cooking classes and business incubation. The town of Peterborough, New Hampshire, decided to take advantage of the space offered by their armory to create a combined community center and recreation space that they also rent out as a location for indoor farm and flea markets, along with a large community kitchen, food pantry, and nutrition and gardening program for young people. The particular focus on food, along with the funds needed to create the up-to-date commercial kitchen, was spurred in large part by a local Peterborough nonprofit, The Cornucopia Project. The frequency with which existing nonprofits and government agencies become key players in armories is a good indication of where funding and community support comes from in these complex and lengthy redevelopment projects. Without long-term support and cash flow, these community-focused projects can struggle to maintain the will to keep going in the midst of many inevitable managerial and construction hurdles.
Newburgh Armory Unity Center: Newburgh, NY
The Newburgh Armory Unity Center, which sits just a few blocks from the Hudson River, incorporates indoor and outdoor sports fields, a gymnasium, conference rooms, classrooms, a mobile office for the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, offices for an immigrant and refugee-focused wing of Catholic Charities, and also for Latinos Unidos, a nonprofit that provides services and advocacy for the Latinos in the region. This unique combination—all managed by a single nonprofit named after the center—provides a one-stop shop for recreation, and also serves as a central place for immigrants, refugees, and those in the Latino community to access services and support. With the many sports facilities, they seem to be hedging their bets that high frequency rentals can help offset the areas with less opportunity for income generation. It’s clear that striking the right balance of income streams is crucial when just one organization is responsible for a facility as large as an armory, shouldering the financial and management pressures.
While these four examples hardly cover the full range of armory projects that exist in the U.S., and other projects with a community focus like those in Los Angeles, and Defiance, Ohio, are also worth looking into, the projects listed above do demonstrate some of what’s possible. They also illustrate that maintaining a focus on the existing community around these buildings helps retain their legacy of service. These armories offer cities and neighborhoods a way to engage with complex local histories while providing a single door through which many groups can come together. At a time when we’re facing resurgent segregation across the U.S., these projects could offer important pathways to connection. And given how much is required to complete them, it’s well worth getting as much community support behind them as possible.