WASHINGTON HEIGHTS — Uptown community groups that offer low-cost or free services to locals say they're being priced out of the city-owned Fort Washington Avenue Armory — which has been demanding increased "donation" fees while hosting more exclusive fashion shows and other private events.
Organizers from several community-based organizations say the armory, located at Fort Washington Avenue and 169th Street, has been giving them the cold shoulder or steadily driving up usage fees for the massive event space, with one nonprofit group being asked to pay $15,000 instead of the $5,000 they previously paid.
"What has been going on there is an atrocity," Paul Griffin, a longtime AAU Basketball coach who volunteers with GDS, a youth counseling organization housed at the Armory, said at a recent meeting of Community Board 12 to discuss the issue. "There’s very few community organizations in there... Every youth member of the Washington Heights community should have access to that building."
While private organizations can rent the space for events — such as a flashy Alexander Wang fashion show on October 17 — community-based groups are expected to make a monetary contribution, or donation, to use the space.
There is no price list available on the Armory Foundation's website, and interested parties have to inquire within about specific events and then get a quote from the group, say those familiar with the process.
But regulars note that they're increasingly being asked to pay large sums to use the space, drastically limiting their ability to host events there, while private events like fashion shows are able to buy more and more access to the space.
One such group, Walking Works Wonders, a free fitness program for seniors organized by the Isabella Geriatric Center in Fort George, used to meet two mornings a week at the armory for participants to use the track during the winter months, organizers said.
However, in 2007, the group stopped meeting there and moved all practices to Isabella’s Audubon Avenue location due to an increase in fees requested by the armory, organizers said.
“They wanted to increase it to some outrageous amount just for seniors to exercise,” said Mary Anderson, who has lived in the neighborhood for 36 years and who volunteered with the group.
Betty Lehmann, a spokeswoman for Isabella, confirmed that the Armory Foundation wanted Isabella to raise its annual donation from $5,000 to $15,000 for about 70 hours per year of use.
“It was a shocker to put it mildly,” Lehmann said. “We were even willing to pay a little bit more, but not $15,000.”
Although the money was technically a donation, the amount was stipulated in Isabella's contract to use the space, Lehmann said. She added that the Armory Foundation refused to renew the contract even when Isabella offered to increase their donation to $10,000.
Lehmann said some of the group members simply stopped attending the program because they could not make it to the alternate location in Fort George.
“It still upsets me that the Armory couldn’t give two hours early in the morning to seniors,” she added.
Dr. Norbert Sander, founder and executive director of the Armory Foundation, which is the main lessee responsible for managing the building, denied that the organization tried to raise Isabella’s donation to $15,000.
“We asked them to pay a slight amount more,” Sander told DNAinfo New York on Wednesday. “I went to them to talk about it and they said ‘No, we’re not really interested in coming anymore so we’ll just do it as Isabella.’”
He added that private events like Wang's fashion show help fund programs at the Armory, which serves about 125,000 kids each year through its track practices and meets.
“We do have to have events such as the fashion show so that we can support everything else,” he said, adding that the venue hosts a number of free activities.
Sander would not provide details of his lease agreement with the city, but he did note that it costs about $5 million each year to run the facility. The foundation funds that through donations, corporate sponsorships and revenue from events, he explained.
According to the Armory Foundation’s most recently available tax records from 2012, the venue took in about $2.75 million from program revenue, with $981,006 of that coming from special events held at the armory. Another $1.96 million came in the form of grants, donations and membership fees. The total revenue for the year was $4.7 million dollars, while total expenses came to $5.1 million.
Neither the Mayor's Office nor the Department of Homeless Services responded to requests to view the Armory's lease agreement with the city.
Sander stressed that the Armory Foundation has worked with many local organizations including the Police Athletic League and local YM & YWHA, but found other groups to be unresponsive or inconsistent with programming.
“I can’t make people come,” he said.
The armory, once the city’s largest homeless shelter, was remodeled beginning in 1993 with public and private funds. It was transformed to include a state-of-the-art track facility, houses the USA Track and Field Hall of Fame, and plays host to hundreds of track meets each year, including the Millrose Games. The track is also used for practices by high school, college and adult track teams, who pay a seasonal fee to train there.
The Department of Homeless Services also operates a smaller men’s shelter in one portion of the building, while other portions are leased to different organizations.
Other community-based organizations told similar stories of being priced out of the facility.
Ayisha Oglivie, who volunteers as a program coordinator for the nonprofit youth fitness group Get Focused Foundation, said her organization was looking for space to hold a one-day fitness event two years ago featuring track activities and an obstacle course. They had worked with other venues in the past, but wanted to hold a larger event.
But Oglivie said that when she reached out to the Armory Foundation, they would not quote her a specific price, only telling her that it was very expensive and her organization most likely could not afford it.
“It would have been fabulous to support the kids in a fitness facility that has all of the amenities for that,” she told DNAinfo New York. “People don’t feel like this is a space for them. They feel like it’s very private and exclusive.”
Angelo Ortiz, director of school culture at the Inwood Academy, works closely with several youth groups in the neighborhood as an organizer for the Washington Heights and Inwood Youth Service Providers Collective.
“We try to leverage resources, and one resource we realized we weren’t connecting with was the Armory,” he said. “It feels like that space is underutilized.”
Ortiz said one challenge is that kids who want to participate in the Armory’s programs, including a College Prep program that has been funded in part by government grants, already must be a part of their high school's track club or team.
“That eliminates a lot of kids from the neighborhood whose schools don’t offer track,” he said.
Ortiz noted that he reached out to the Armory Foundation about the possibility of the nonprofit operating its own track club in which local kids could participate if their school does not offer such a program. But was told they don’t have the staff or financial capacity to accommodate it.
Sander said the venue offers free programming to many children, including an open track program "for middle school students from Washington Heights. They just have to come with a supervisor and we have coaches for them,” he said.
While Sander said the middle school program is free, the Armory Foundation website lists a cost of $400 per track club each season to practice twice a week in the space. The Armory Foundation provides coaches from New York Road Runner's to assist the teams.
"This is the New York City track, the most famous and best-used indoor track in America," he said. "It just happens to be in Washington Heights. It's not a rec center."