P.S. 186 on 145th Street between Broadway and Amsterdam in Harlem has not echoed with the thud of books or the hum of adolescent gossip since the mid-1970’s. Its “green roof” would be enviable if it weren’t for the fact that lush green leaves are the only things between the sky and the inside of much of the top floor. Trees have taken root in the abandoned building and their branches and foliage peek out of glassless windows and formerly stately arches.
Now, the M.L. Wilson Boys and Girls Club has plans for the graffiti-strewn building—plans that include demolition. But not everyone in the community is on board with that idea.
The club is planning a development that includes a large Boys and Girls Club facility, a school, 90 units of affordable housing and a commercial space which might be a U.S. post office. The development will include a 13-story residential tower.
The $79 million project is being financed through a combination of tax-exempt bonds, low-income tax credits, capital grants and loans from organizations like the Harlem Community Development Corporation, which lent $100,000 to the Boys and Girls Club in the fall of 2009.
“This is a great project that will benefit the entire community. We are faced with a 50 percent graduation rate. We need facilities like this to help our children and families,” said Shirley Lewis, Boys and Girls Club of Harlem Chairwoman. ” This project allows us to have a positive impact on even more people in many different ways.”
But the 1986 document that deeded P.S. 186 from the city to the M.L. Wilson Boys and Girls Club of Harlem for $215,000 stipulated that 85 percent of the usable floor area be devoted to non-profit use.
Depending on how one defines “non-profit use,” the club’s current plan might not satisfy the 85 percent requirement. Complicating matters is the fact that the 1986 deal said that the 85 percent deed restriction disappears if M.L. Wilson sells the property after 25 years. The 25-year anniversary of the deed restriction is January 13, 2011, before the current project’s planned groundbreaking.
That’s why some opponents of the project worry that the community is not going to benefit.
“Our feeling is that the deed restriction was put there to make sure this building would remain a community asset even it were sold. If this clause expires, we lose that assurance,” explained Walter South, chair of Community Board 9‘s landmarks and preservation committee. South says he will hire an attorney to explore ways to extend the deed restriction.
Lewis dismisses concerns that the proposed development might not be community friendly, and says there are no plans to sell. “We have no agenda other than what we are planning now. Our vision is to build a community asset,” Lewis said. “We want families to live in the affordable housing and send their kids to the school and have the children participate in the Boys and Girls Club activities. We want the commercial space to be something for the community, too.”
Lewis says the Boys and Girls Club of Harlem has four clubhouses, including M.L. Wilson, and that they serve over 2,000 children every year. The hope is that the planned 25,000-square-foot Boys and Girls Club will increase the organization’s capacity.
Benjamin Warnke of Alembic Development—a company that works exclusively with non-profit organizations and is the development partner for the P.S. 186 project— says critics of the project need not worry about the development becoming a high-end, luxury fortress, even with the deed restriction expiring.
“If the city thought the Boys and Girls Club was doing something against the spirit of the deed restrictions, they would be moving toward extending the deed restrictions. Plus, the Boys and Girls Club has been around for years. They fully intend to build a real community asset,” noted Warnke. “All 90 units of housing on the site will be affordable. We’ve received lots of interest from different organizations about a potential school and even if the post office doesn’t relocate to our site, I don’t foresee a problem getting a good commercial tenant in the space.”
But the use of the space is not the only issue; how to create it is another. The Boys and Girls Club’s plan would be accomplished at the expense of the building itself. The 108-year-old Italianate building has sat empty for over 30 years. Though the stone face of Minerva that adorns the 145th Street side of the building has remained virtually untouched, much of the building is in deep disrepair, including the roof that is more leaf than stone. Despite its decaying condition, South and other organizations like the New York Landmarks Conservancy would like to see the building rehabbed rather than demolished.
“We are always in favor of the re-use and restoration of buildings like P.S. 186. All of C.B.J. Snyder’s schools were so well-built and beautifully designed,” said Alex Herrera, technical services director for the New York Landmarks Conservancy, referring to P.S. 186’s noted architect. “That building represents the idea that everyone deserves the best possible education. No matter race, class or country of birth, everyone deserves light, big windows and proper ventilation. That’s why the building is H-shaped. It’s unfortunate that the Boys and Girls Club has done nothing with the building all these years and now their plan calls for its demolition. It’s a fine building with a wonderful history.”
Though Community Board 9 in a nonbinding 2008 resolution officially expressed a desire for P.S. 186 to be preserved, the CB9 executive board voted down a resolution in 2010 supporting local landmark designation for the school. That could have greatly restricted redevelopment. South still plans to submit an application to the New York City Landmarks Preservation Committee at some point and hopefully win the endorsement of elected officials.
So far, according to South, State Senator Bill Perkins is the only elected official who has shown support for preservation and landmark designation of the building. And even that support is qualified.
“Ideally, I would love to see the building be preserved and the components of the project come together. However, if the project can’t come to fruition within that framework, I would still like to see the development move forward. This is something we’ve been working on for years in this community,” said Perkins during a break in a legislative session in Albany.
Lewis claims that the condition of the building and its shape are just not conducive to the organization’s plans or pocketbook: “You can’t build everything that is in our plan within an H-shape. It’s not feasible and even if it were, it would be exorbitant to rehab. The building has been without a roof for 10 years. There are some elements of the building that perhaps can be salvaged, maybe some of the wrought-iron railings.”
Proponents of preservation point to the rehabilitation of P.S. 90 on 148th Street. Like P.S. 186, it was a long abandoned, H-shaped and designed by the same famed architect, Charles Snyder. Unlike P.S. 186, the exterior of P.S. 90 has been painstakingly preserved while the inside has been renovated for luxury condos.
“P.S. 90 is a completely different situation,” argued Warnke. “P.S. 186 is in much worse condition than P.S. 90 was when they started rehab. There’s no roof on P.S. 186, so it’s been completely exposed to the elements for years. ” According to Warnke, work on P.S. 90 began before the city’s new building code was enacted—a building code that would make the rehabilitation of P.S. 186 more difficult with stricter rules on entrances, exits and passageways.
Warnke said that all 90 units of rental housing in the proposed development will be affordable to families who make no more than 60 percent of area median income, or AMI—a regional measure calculated by the federal government. The 2009-2010 New York City AMI is $77,400. Sixty-percent of $77,400 is $46,440. As in all affordable housing projects that involve federal tax credits and are based on AMI, there are concerns that the income levels are not reflective of the needs of the area.
“AMI includes communities that are far away from this one. My concern is that any definition of affordable for this project must mean that it is affordable to the people who live in this community. Now, 60 percent of AMI is a maximum. I want to know the minimum. That’s important to know,” said Perkins.
Warnke is planning for a July 2011 groundbreaking for the development. Demolition would be complete before then and the hope is that a fully functioning development would be ready by 2013. According to Warnke, none of the proposed plan will trigger the city’s Uniform Land Use Review Procedure.