By Jeff Mays
HARLEM — Lou Castro says the basketball court behind her building at Fifth Avenue and East 117th Street gave her two grandsons a safe place to play when she wasn't well enough to take them to the park.
"I can't walk too much, so taking them to Central Park was too far sometimes," she said.
But the court will be gone for good if L+M Development Partners Inc. get their way and build two new buildings with almost 200 units of housing on the site, a plan that has Castro and other residents up in arms.
"It's sad because where are the kids going to play?" Castro said while standing outside of her building.
Community Board 10 will have a hearing on proposed zoning changes needed to facilitate the new buildings on June 1.
A new 12-story residential 95-unit building with 20,000 feet of retail space is planned on West 116th Street. A nine-story, 100-unit housing building with 9,000 feet of community facility space is planned for West 117th Street.
Neighbors said they don't want to see the court destroyed, since it's one of the few places kids can gather safely.
Shortly after school let out Wednesday, a young man came out and began dribbling a ball around the court.
"They need that court. We want to keep them off these streets," neighbor Preston Lawrence said.
Susan Winfield, who has lived across the street for 20 years, also defended the court and decried L+M's plan to get rid of it. "The kids here need the basketball court so they can play. They should leave us alone and let us have our backyard."
Philip Ramirez, a spokesperson for L+M Development Partners, said the company would consider including a new basketball court on the new property once it's been completed if there is enough of a community push for it.
"We are prepared to relocate the basketball courts within the current property if that is what the majority of the residents want," Ramirez said, "Prior to the start of construction, we will be engaging residents to determine the best use of the existing open space, be it the basketball courts or some other use."
L+M Development Partners is responsible for the Kalahari, a 249-unit condo that includes 125 affordable units, on the south side of West 116th Street between Lenox and Fifth avenues. L+M has also won acclaim for redeveloping P.S. 90, a six-story Beaux Arts building at West 148th Street and Adam Clayton Powell Boulevard. The former school was abandoned because of asbestos problems.
The company specializes in affordable housing, and hired Rafael Cestero, the former head of the city's department of Housing Preservation and Development, earlier this month.
The firm recently embarked on a $28 million rehabilitation of 1482 Fifth Ave. Amy Kiros, owner of Gran Piatto D'oro, an Italian restaurant across the street from 1482 Fifth Ave., had good things to say about L+M Development.
"They made the building really pretty," she said of the recent rehab work. But she hoped the basketball court could be saved.
"Sometimes you don't want to send your kids too far to play. There, they were right under people's eyes," she said. "It seems like slowly, the kids are losing everything."