On Friday, city officials announced that the Bedford Union Armory in Crown Heights will now be called the Major R. Owens Health and Wellness Community Center. Owens, who served in Congress between 1983 and 2007, died in 2013.
“Major Owens left Brooklyn better than he found it, and New York City is proud to honor his legacy with this facility,” Mayor Bill de Blasio said. “Generations of New Yorkers will learn, grow and play at this community center, and they will have a role model of strength and fairness as they do.”
The facility will house a 60,000-square-foot recreation center, which is expected to open by the end of 2021. It will include an indoor swimming pool, three hardwood basketball courts, an indoor soccer field, dance and performance studios, a fitness center and areas for boxing and archery.
The former armory will also be home to 45,000 square feet for local community-based nonprofits that offer programming such as coding, after-school support, athletic clinics and camps.
The redeveloped site will feature 415 units of housing, 250 of which will be affordable at 60 percent of the area median income (AMI). Some apartments will be reserved for formerly homeless New Yorkers. The residential component of the project will open in 2022 and 2023.
“Major R. Owens’ legacy of listening to the needs of the Crown Heights community and advocating for a gathering space and recreational facility that they could be proud of goes back a long way,” said James Patchett, president and CEO of New York City Economic Development Corporation (EDC), “and now it will be memorialized permanently.”
Opened in 1908, the armory was used by the U.S. Army for training, equipment storage and even as a horse stable. After 2008, Owens, then a professor at Medgar Evers College, envisioned the armory as a community center for recreation and gathering.
He then spent several years engaging with residents, business owners, local elected officials and his own students to better understand the needs of Crown Heights. The military decommissioned the building in 2013, turning over ownership of the site to the city.
Chris Owens, the former congressman’s son, said the renaming of the armory is a “fitting way” to remember his father.
“Major Owens believed that institution building was the key to community empowerment and the well-being of every community,” he said. “Major wanted the swords turned into ploughshares, and the new community center represents the transformation from an ‘oppressive’ mindset to one where health and education bring different people together in the pursuit of happiness and community.”
Owens was a longtime civic leader in Brooklyn, starting with the Brooklyn Public Library (BPL) as an information librarian. In 1968, he was named commissioner of the city’s Community Development Agency.
He was elected to the State Senate, where he served between 1975 and 1982. Afterward, he was elected to the House to replace retiring congresswoman Shirley Chisholm, the first Black woman elected to Congress.
The congressman served for nearly 25 years, advocating for civil rights and disability rights. He was also an ardent supporter of increasing library funding and education access. He was succeeded by Congresswoman Yvette Clarke.
“Few men have ever been so dedicated to their constituents, so committed to just and moral legislating, and so passionate about overcoming the issues of our day as the great Major Owens,” Clarke said. “I can think of no honor more fitting than to name a center for community after a man so devoted to his community.”
Councilwoman Laurie Cumbo, who supported the redevelopment of the armory, said the facility is a reflection of years of dedication from Owens, community leaders and everyone who were “focused on the bigger picture.”
“The Major R. Owens Health and Community Wellness Center is a true symbol of the culture and legacy of this historic neighborhood,” she said. “We fought unwaveringly to ensure that this community space would reflect the beauty and history of Crown Heights, and I am proud to be standing here seeing that Major Owens’ vision is being brought to light.”