The road may have been long and windy, but on Wednesday the Major R. Owens Health & Wellness Community Center officially opened its doors to the community.

In a ribbon-cutting ceremony that included African dance and drumming performances, blessings, speeches, many comments of congratulation and awe, the overwhelming sentiment was “we did it.”

The 60,000 square-foot armory building, formerly used to store cavalry and horses but which has been left in disrepair, has been retrofitted as a neighborhood recreation and community center, complete with a 25-meter, six-lane competitive swimming pool, basketball courts, and a multi-purpose court.

Major R. Owens Health and Wellness Community Center opening. Photo: Gerri Hernandez.

The center also includes 35,000 square feet of office space for nonprofits and is now a permanent home for Brooklyn Pride, Digital Girl, Inc., and Ifetayo Cultural Arts Academy, and more. The Boys Club of New York will be the operator of the gym at the center, and Imagine Swimming, Inc., New Heights Youth and Globall Sports Center will offer classes to local members that include basketball, soccer, swimming, boxing and fencing.

The center also includes the Betty Carter Auditorium for the Arts (BCAA) and has a 25,000 square-foot health center, run by Brooklyn Plaza Medical Center.

The Major R. Owens Health and Wellness Community Center has had its share of controversy, centered mostly around whether the new development would be truly affordable to existing residents or would increase the tides of gentrification to the neighborhood.

As part of the deal to convert the City-owned armory into the recreational center and housing, residents were promised a share of affordable apartments and low-cost, accessible activities at the center.

To satisfy that requirement, BFC Partners, who developed the center, has said that Imagine Swimming will offer 9,000 lessons per year at $10 rather than $50; New Heights, which is the center’s basketball operator, will offer free or low cost basketball clinics and leagues; there will be 250 discounted memberships for Community Board 9 members; Globall Sports Center, which will operate the multi-sport synthetic turf, will run soccer clinics and lessons at $10 versus $50 per hour for Community Board 9 residents; amongst other community benefits.

Standard memberships for the gym within the center are $30 per month, while seniors and low-income adults below the 200% Federal Poverty Level can join for $10 per month and youth memberships are around $8 per month.

Councilmember Laurie Cumbo, who was instrumental in seeing the center come to life, has faced harsh criticism for her role in backing the project, but on Wednesday said the hard work that went into the development had revived the Bedford Union Armory “as the jewel of Crown Heights, and I look forward to all the generations who will learn, grow, and thrive within this great community.”

“Former Congressman Major Robert Odell Owens committed his life to advocating for those who have been unfavorably impacted by unjust systems,” she said.

“The Major R. Owens Health & Community Wellness Center is a reflection of years of dedication from Major Owens, and all those who were focused on the bigger picture both then and now, a testament to those who had the capacity to see how this space could support and enhance the rich and unique communities within Crown Heights and beyond.”

The $256 million project was completed in a partnership between the de Blasio administration, New York City Economic Development Corporation, members of the Owens family and Crown Heights community, and BFC Partners. It also includes 415 apartments, 260 of which will be affordable — set aside for families of three making up to $58,000 a year. Around 30 of those units are earmarked for formerly homeless individuals.

On Wednesday, Mayor Bill de Blasio reiterated one of the most important things in a community was having safe spaces for children to play and learn, and he congratulated Cumbo on her hard work and perservarance throughout the project

“Investing in our people and communities, especially in ones that have often been overlooked, is how we build a recovery for all of us,” he said.

“The Major R. Owens Health & Wellness Community Center will provide New Yorkers a place to thrive and grow for generations to come.”

Chris Owens, son of the late Congressman Major R. Owens, added: “Congressman Major Owens had a vision for Central Brooklyn, and this new community resource makes real one part of that vision — providing Central Brooklyn’s communities with the world-class recreational and educational resources they deserve.”

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Anna Bradley-Smith

Anna Bradley-Smith is Brooklyn-based reporter with bylines in NBC, VICE, Slate and others. Follow her on Twitter @annabradsmith.

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