Elected officials officially cut the ribbon on the Major R. Owens Health and Wellness Center on Oct. 27, marking the official opening of the recreational facility in the Bedford-Union Armory building in Crown Heights.
The project, mired in controversy since it was first pitched to Crown Heights residents, is thought of as a legacy-defining project for outgoing Councilmember Laurie Cumbo, who spoke emotionally about the long planning process at the opening ceremony.
“It has been an ordeal, but I am so proud and overjoyed to see the vision actually come to life,” Cumbo said. “Seeing the young people playing basketball, when I see the children swimming, when I see life here, I know that we did the right thing, I know that the sacrifices that we made were the right ones.”
The shiny new center on Bedford Avenue near Union Street features basketball courts, indoor soccer fields, a weight room, a swimming pool, health and wellness resources, space for educational programming, summer camps, and community events, as well as office space for a number of nonprofits and community groups, including the Brooklyn Pride Center and the West Indian American Carnival Association.
The project was developed by the private development firm BFC Partners as part of a larger redevelopment of the city-owned building, which includes a residential building that will be partially made up of affordable rental units.
Representatives of BFC heaped praise onto Cumbo at the ceremony, saying she never wavered during this “ambitious undertaking.”
“It’s easy to fear change and to oppose a grand vision,” said BFC Partners Principal Donald Cappocia. “Laurie understood that the Major Owens Center mission is bigger than that and she stood up, and by her decision to support this ambitious undertaking.”
At the heart of the years of controversy over the project was the city’s decision to hand the project over to a private developer, and the 40 percent of units that are slated to be market rate, despite being on city-owned land.
Cumbo initially opposed the project on those grounds, before shifting her views.
“Since the very beginning our message has been clear — we will not allow public land to be used for the purpose of luxury condominiums,” she said in 2017.
Cumbo changed her tune later that same year after the developers agreed to include more affordable housing units, declaring before the City Council that the project was “revolutionary.”
Following its approval by the City Council in 2017, controversy around the project largely died down, until it was reignited earlier this year when a report in the non-profit news outlet The CITY revealed a $50 price tag for swimming lessons at the new center.
BFC Partners later announced that just 250 discounted memberships would be offered to residents of Community Board 9 — when Cumbo was asked for comment on this by The CITY she launched into a sarcasm-laced rant, calling the project “designed for third-wave gentrifiers who are coming into the community.”
Cumbo later backtracked her remarks in a lengthy email to constituents, assuring them that more discounted memberships would be offered in the future depending on the state of the pandemic.
“This is the solution to ending the gun violence epidemic in our community, and right now we need all hands on deck to help get this right for our children and future children,” Cumbo wrote in the Oct. 6 email. “We can’t afford to lose any more of our children.”
Earlier this year, local politicos renamed the center after Major Owens, the late congressional rep who served the area in Washington DC for 24 years.