City May Decide to Renovate or Tear Down Historic P.S. 31 Within Weeks

By Patrick Wall on September 27, 2013 6:55am 

CONCOURSE — After towering over the Grand Concourse for 114 years, P.S. 31 could finally come tumbling down — the city says the landmarked building is in such disrepair it may need to be demolished.

But the Bronx nonprofit SoBRO calls that idea “total nonsense,” and says it has a plan to convert the abandoned school into apartments for low-income artists.

Now, city officials say the developer has just weeks to prove its bold renovation plan is rock solid, otherwise the boarded-up building will be razed — a prospect that many in the community dread.

“This is the equivalent of someone going to England and saying they want to tear down Oxford University,” said Arline Parks, a member of the local community board, at a meeting Wednesday. “That’s what this institution means to us.”

Since the Gothic landmark at East 144th Street was closed as a school in 1997, it has steadily crumbled, with parts of the roof collapsed, walls and windows missing and its basement flooded.

Then Hurricane Sandy pummeled the building, causing it to shower debris onto the sidewalk five stories below, and leaving it dangerously unstable, according to Department of Building engineer Timothy Lynch.

“I would regard this building as high risk,” he said at a June Community Board 1 meeting. “It certainly is a hazard to public safety.”

But Phillip Morrow, president of SoBRO, the South Bronx economic-development agency, said such dire warnings are overstated — the idea that the 19th-century building can only endure a few more months is “total nonsense,” he said.

Three different engineers commissioned by SoBRO found P.S. 31 to be salvageable, with about two-thirds of the building in solid condition, Morrow said.

To produce its proposal, SoBRO has partnered with the Minneapolis-based nonprofit developer, Artspace, which specializes in creating affordable housing and workspaces for artists. Their plan calls for up to 60 live/work apartments as well as a public space that could house art galleries, a theater or art classes.

Such a major renovation would cost tens of millions of dollars, which the developer would have to secure.

Morrow said they have a viable financial plan that includes historic-building and low-income-housing tax credits and financing through Goldman Sachs’ Urban Investment Group. A Goldman spokeswoman said the bank is “interested in investing in the project if the city approves it.”

“Financing is not the issue,” Morrow said. “The issue is a matter of political will.”

A Housing Preservation and Development Department spokesman said the agency will determine if the SoBRO-Artspace plan is viable in the “near future.” A representative from the mayor’s office said the building’s fate would be decided by the end of October.

Whether the city decides to renovate or raze the building, the Landmark Preservation Commission must hold a public hearing and vote on the plan.

Though Morrow insists the historic building can be restored, others doubt it.

An official who recently toured the building noted the flooded basement, sagging floors and open roof and said flatly, “The building can’t be saved.”

The official added that, if the building were demolished, many developers would likely compete for the site, which is steps from the subway and Hostos Community College.

Even Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr., who attended P.S. 31 and learned to play basketball in its schoolyard, said he will embrace a building-renovation plan if it’s possible, “but if it has to come down, it has to come down.”

He, too, toured the building and said that what he found was not encouraging.

“It broke my heart,” he said.

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