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'Eyesore' School to Be Transformed Into Affordable Housing

By Amy Zimmer | October 4, 2011 12:38pm
The abandoned P.S. 109 on East 99th Street near Third Avenue will be transformed into 90 affordable artist housing units and 10,000 square feet of arts space.
The abandoned P.S. 109 on East 99th Street near Third Avenue will be transformed into 90 affordable artist housing units and 10,000 square feet of arts space.
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MANHATTAN — What was once a hard dividing line between the Upper East Side and East Harlem — East 96th Street — has seemed to soften over the last decade, so much so that realtors are now marketing buildings north of the boundary as being in "Upper Carnegie Hill."

But one project in the works on East 99th Street aims not only to preserve a piece of East Harlem, but foster it.

Called El Barrio’s Artspace, the $50 million community-driven project being developed by the Minnesota-based nonprofit Artspace with El Barrio’s Operation Fightback, will transform an abandoned public school at 215 East 99th St., near Third Avenue, into 90 affordable homes for artists and their families and include 10,000 square feet of space for arts groups.

"It's been sitting there like a sore thumb in the community," Gus Rosado, of El Barrio’s Operation Takeback, said of P.S. 109. 

"We thought of making it like a beacon for the artist energy in the area as opposed to the black hole that it was. The artistic community here is very vibrant and the neighborhood is looking for events."

P.S. 109, a Gothic Revival style building from 1898 that’s on the National Register of Historic Places, had been vacated more than 15 years ago. Demolition had actually begun on the structure before community protests intervened.

Rosado’s group thought the building with its big windows and huge ceilings would be perfect for artists.

"The community made it clear that you could not tear it down," said Shawn McLearen, Artspace’s project manager. “The community made it clear they didn’t want luxury condos.”

The project has been in development stages for more than five years, facing delays and being overhauled several times amid a challenging economy and changing needs for the project. The price has gone up and down and went from 70 rental apartments to 90, McLearen explained.

The developer finally filed permits with the Department of Buildings this summer and is expected to start construction in December. The building is expected to be completed in December 2013.

“We tend to be a little slower than a for-profit developer,” McLearen said. “But we really want to make sure it’s a model that’s replicable.”

The project is also focused on how the building will play a role in giving back to the community and aims to achieve more than just offering affordable housing, McLearen explained.

It will restore an important historic building and create an eco-friendly hub by adding a community garden, community kitchen and green market. It will try to foster economic development by becoming a destination for new residents and cultural tourists drawn to the new programs there.

The development team also wants to help a changing neighborhood retain its Latino identity.

At least half of the units will be reserved for painters, dancers, actors, writers and other artists currently living in the community. There will be a lottery for the apartments and a selection committee to review applying artists. The apartments are expected to range somewhere from $550 to $1,100 a month, McLearen said.

"We could have chosen a different site in the city. But this is where we believe we could be making a difference,” McLearen said.

“It’s particularly important in places like El Barrio where the creative community is under threat of getting pushed out.”

Over the last 10 years, the East 96th Street boundary — a dividing line traditionally about race and income — has changed. The area just north of 96th Street saw a 55 percent increase in the population of white residents, according to the 2010 census. For instance, blocks on East 102nd Street showed increases from dozens to hundreds of white residents.

According to StreetEasy.com, a building designed by well-known architect Robert A.M. Stern at 1280 Fifth Ave., near 109th Street — in “Upper Carnegie Hill” — has apartments ranging from a $740,000 studio to a $6.8 million six-bedroom unit.

While being near Central Park is more desirable and pricier than the eastern part of the neighborhood, East Harlemites have still been concerned about the changes.

“It really is a great opportunity for the area to retain its community and culture,” Rosado said of El Barrio Artspace. “East Harlem has been going through a transition. … Lower-income people are getting kicked out and even more so the artists.”

Because the project cuts across so many objectives, it was able to get money from a variety of sources, including the Ford Foundation, the Andy Warhol Foundation for Visual Art, the Rockefeller Foundation and the New York Community Trust. It is also using low-income housing tax credits, historic preservation tax credits and other local and federal funding.

"It's taken a little time not only to build the table around which everyone can sit," McLearen said, "but also to bring the chairs."