As deadline nears, fate of Kingsbridge development unclear

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A rendering of Kingsbridge National Ice Center. (aasarchitecture.com)
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A longstanding plan to build an ice rink at the site of the former Kingsbridge Armory in the Bronx will hit a critical deadline next month, when it must present a substantial chunk of funding in order to get a lease from the de Blasio administration to go forward.

But as the date approaches, the fate of the project remains uncertain.

The city has said it would not turn over the lease to the site until the developer, Kingsbridge National Ice Center (KNIC), shows it has $158 million for the first phase of the project, per an earlier agreement.

And it is unclear whether the Empire State Development (ESD) corporation, an entity of the Cuomo administration, will provide the bulk of the necessary funds by the deadline, as was laid out in previous public documents.

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It has so far approved $30 million of the total, far shy of the $138 million it has already public committed to. And the state's Public Authorities Control Board (PACB) approved only a $15 million loan at its Jan. 28 meeting.

The PACB is one of Albany's most obscure but powerful bodies, allowing representatives of the Assembly Democrats and Senate Republicans to veto spending by Cuomo administration authorities that wasn't specifically outlined in budget documents.

Without the full funding, the lease would remain in escrow and the future of the development hangs in the balance.

The issue did not come up during an ESD meeting on Thursday, though the organization could still approve the funding before the March 26 deadline.

In a bit of political drama, the city is saying it won't deliver the lease until the money is accounted for, while the state is indicating the city has shown a willingness to turn over the property.

"Under the terms of their escrow agreement, KNIC (the developer) agreed to obtain binding commitments for $158 million in Phase 1 for this project by March 26, 2016. We have not yet been presented with documentation of those binding commitments, but we look forward to receiving them and to moving forward with the Kingsbridge Armory project," Anthony Hogrebe, spokesman for the city Economic Development Corporation, said in an email. That agency is responsible for the lease.

But a spokeswoman for the state agency painted a different picture.

“The redevelopment of Kingsbridge Armory into the Kingsbridge National Ice Center will create 400 jobs and put a long-vacant building back into use. As the developers work to secure the additional private funding they need, the $30 million loan recently approved by Empire State Development will help make this project a reality‎. We are excited that at a public meeting this week, the City announced they are going to take the crucial step of working with the developer to release the Kingsbridge lease from escrow," spokeswoman Kay Sarlin Wright wrote in an email.

She was referring to remarks made by a city representative at a community meeting hosted by State Sen. Gustavo Rivera on Wednesday evening.

The developer, which is run by hockey legend Mark Messier, said it is still expecting the project to go forward.

"With the commitment of the State of New York, our client believes it has demonstrated timely and good faith compliance with the escrow condition," said William Brewer, a partner at the law firm Brewer Attorneys & Counselors, which represents the developer. "We look forward to working with the EDC and other community partners to move forward with this historic project."

Wright said the ESD still intends to release the remaining funds but did not give a specific date by which that would happen.

The project is of particular importance to the Bronx borough president, Ruben Diaz, who opposed a Bloomberg-era plan to build a retail mall at the armory site because it didn't require the builder to pay its workers a government mandated wage.

The current proposal would transform the land into a 750,000-square-foot complex, with nine ice rinks, an arena, and community and wellness centers.

The total price tag is nearly $350 million, with $158 million covering the first phase.

The developer has indicated it intends to use the popular EB-5 program, which trades foreign investments for visas, to cover some of the costs.

Diaz, a Democrat, has positioned himself as an ally of the governor and a persistent critic of de Blasio.

The state-run ESD originally planned to fund its Kingsbridge commitment with money from the Transformative Investment Fund, a $400 million budgetary pool created by former State Sen. Dean Skelos last year to support projects, which senators would help pick, that "create or retain jobs" in New York City and on Long Island.

Critics dubbed them slush funds, and they have come under increased scrutiny in Albany this year. Skelos lost his seat in December after being convicted of trading official favors for payments and jobs for his son, Adam.

Facing resistance at the PACB from Skelos' former colleagues, the ESD backed away from that investment fund and instead decided to loan Kinsgbridge money through the New York Works program, which Cuomo controls.

Brad Austin, the ESD lawyer who presented to the project at the Jan. 28 meeting of the PACB, said the authority was re-evaluating how it uses the investment fund and promised more money for the ice rink project was forthcoming.

"I'd like to note that while the Kingsbridge project resolution is for $15 million, (the ESD) board has approved up to $30 million as part of a larger $138 million commitment," Austin said. "We do anticipate returning to seek PACB approval for additional money in the future."

--additional reporting by Jimmy Vielkind