Opponents Hope City College Will Change Design of Colin Powell School
HARLEM — Opponents of a City College plan to add a three story addition to a Convent Avenue townhouse that will be the home of the Colin Powell School for Civic and Global Leadership hope to get the school to scale down the plan after a meeting later this month.
The limestone townhouse at 280 Convent Ave. at 141st Street was once proposed as the site for the Charles B. Rangel Center for Public Service at City College. The Landmarks Preservation Commission approved changes last week to the townhouse, located in the Hamilton Heights-Sugar Hill Historic District, without the proposal being presented to Community Board 9 for an advisory opinion.
City College says CB 9 officials told them they didn't need to present the plan because the building itself is not landmarked, but chair Rev. Georgiette Morgan-Thomas says the proposal should have been presented to the board as a courtesy.
Neighbors and historic preservationists say the three-story addition overpowers the homes in the historic district and are upset that there was no community review of the plan. The Historic Districts Council said the addition is out of character with the area in testimony submitted to the landmarks commission.
"Up until now the house has been an eyesore," said Claude Howard who owns the townhouse next door with his wife, Julie Butler. "We didn't have an opportunity to contest the changes which makes us feel even more dumped on."
The townhouse at 280 Convent Ave. is a Beaux-Arts style rowhouse that was built from 1899 through 1902. It was designed by Henri Fouchaux, a well-known area townhouse designer.
The Landmarks Preservation Commission encourages applicants to make presentations to the local community board where a project is located. A spokeswoman for the commission said they were made aware that CB 9 did not receive a presentation but decided to proceed with the vote due to time constraints.
Howard called the new addition imposing. "It just makes our space less desirable and affects our property value," he said.
Rangel, the former chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, was censured in 2010 for using congressional letterhead to raise money for the center from companies that had business before the powerful committee, among other infractions.
In a letter to Morgan-Thomas this week Rangel still referred to the townhouse as the "home of the Charles B. Rangel Center for Public Service."
City College officials have declined to answer questions about when the site was changed to the Powell School.
Powell, a former Secretary of State and chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, donated $5 million to his alma mater earlier this year to support the school.
Rangel said he agreed the proposal should have been vetted using the traditional process.
"I wholeheartedly agree with you that Community Board 9, along with the Hamilton Heights Historic District Councils and organizations, and the West Harlem community at large that any changes to the preservation of this historic district and neighborhood should be vetted through the proper planning board approval process," Rangel wrote in the letter.
Morgan-Thomas says she hopes the college will listen to concerns about the project in "good faith" because approval was already granted.
"Colin Powell is a man of great integrity. Nothing that carries his name should be embroiled in controversy," said Morgan-Thomas. "Based on the relationship we have with City College we hope they give us the opportunity to add our input."
The townhouse, known as Alumni House, has been vacant since the 1970s and has suffered through fire and water damage.
Dr. Vincent Boudreau, director of the Colin L. Powell Center for Service and Leadership, said in a statement that the townhouse "has the potential to be a gorgeous part of an historic Harlem block. We embrace the opportunity to rehabilitate this beautiful structure and put it back into use."
But preservationists such as Yuien Chin of the Hamilton Heights-West Harlem Community Preservation Organization remain skeptical.
"The process was circumvented. The project was approved," Chin said.
"Will CCNY's neighbors on either side of the building and community have a chance to express their concerns and is CCNY open to comments and willing to modify plans, if necessary? If not, we are in the same place," she added.
Howard said they've had problems with the vacant City College townhouse since they purchased their home in 1997. There were rats and a squatter in the home several years back, Howard said.
Howard also believes burglars were able to access his townhouse's family room and steal a television by coming through a space at the vacant City College townhouse.
That's why Howard said he and his wife would love to see the townhouse renovated and occupied. But neighbors and those concerned with the historic district should have input.
"We haven't had any information from the college and they have not talked to us for a long time," said Howard. "It looks like this thing was just cooked up and done without any community involvement or notice."