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Long-Delayed Plan to Turn School Into Boys and Girls Club Moves Forward

By Jeff Mays | July 23, 2013 12:59pm
 After years of consternation and a long-delayed plan to build a Boys and Girls Club and residential housing at the abandoned P.S. 186 on West 145th Street in Harlem, developers and officials from the non-profit say there may be a light at the end of the tunnel.
P.S. 186 Boys and Girls Club
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HARLEM — The vacant building at 549 W. 145th St., with its giant holes in the roof, mounds of rubble and trees growing inside, has been languishing for nearly four decades now. 

What was architecturally valuable about the structure that once housed P.S. 186 — its grand cornice and large windows — are gone. Some window openings are now filled with cinder block, and the outline of where the cornice once hung are all that remain.

"It's a wreck, so we completely have to redo it from top to bottom," said Tom Ciano of Monadnock Construction.

After years of consternation and a long-delayed plan to build a hub for the Boys and Girls Club of Harlem and residential housing on the site, developers and officials from the nonprofit say there may be a light at the end of the tunnel.

The group is in the second phase of applying for up to $10 million worth of tax credits from the State Historic Preservation Office. It also plans to apply for $3 million in funding from the city's Department of Housing Preservation and Development and another $18 million in low-income tax credits.

And after a combined $4 million commitment of city funds from City Councilman Robert Jackson and Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer's discretionary budgets — not to mention another $7 million that would come from traditional financing once the other funding sources are secured — executives from the Boys and Girls Club believe the $40 million project is finally on the right track.

If all goes well, a tentative and aggressive date for a groundbreaking could be anywhere from June to December 2014.

"My inclination is to save buildings," Kirk Goodrich, director of development at Monadnock Construction, told members of Community Board 9 at a special summer meeting of the zoning and land use committee last week.

Residents have been hearing about plans for the building for almost 30 years, ever since the Boys and Girls Club purchased the school from the state in 1986, 11 years after the school closed, for $215,000. The project was supposed to be completed in three years.

The building, however, has been untouched and deteriorating for decades.

Plans to tear the building down and build a residential tower with a Boys and Girls Club at the base were fought by the community, which wanted to preserve the building. Now on their second developer in seven years, the Boys and Girls Club and their development partners believe preserving the school can actually work financially in their favor.

Goodrich estimated it would cost a minimum of $4 million to tear the building down — money they now won't have to ask the city for. Preserving the building opens up the possibility of state historic tax credits. It also means that some of the building's best elements, such as 14-foot ceilings and the U-shaped courtyard, will be saved.

The new building would house 81 units of rental housing, 80 percent of which would be set aside for low-income tenants. The remaining 20 percent would be split between market-rate housing and middle-income tenants. A low-income family of four would have to earn about $51,000 under current guidelines to qualify for a low-income apartment at the building.

The new, 10,000-square-foot Boys and Girls Club would become the group's hub in Harlem and serve 2,000 children per year, said Shirley Lewis, chair of the Boys and Girls Club of Harlem.

"We are determined to get this done," she said.

But that doesn't mean there aren't still obstacles. The group has already been turned down once for HPD funding, and the state historic tax credits must be approved for the project to work. The plan still has a lot of uncertainty depending on the outcome of funding decisions from the city and state.

"There's no guarantee. Tax credits are a scarce resource, and the building is expensive and we are not producing a lot of units," Ciano said. "We could be back here next year saying we were not funded."

That idea frightened the people who have been fighting to save the building and see it put to good use.

"Hope is not a strategy. We like the current plan, but is it time to consider a plan B?" asked Community Board 9 member Jessica Martinez.

Goodrich said other possibilities include doing what L+M Development Partners Inc. did at P.S. 90, another long-abandoned school on West 148th Street, and turning it into condominiums. But that would mean the loss of millions in tax-credit financing.

"What we are doing is the right thing," said Goodrich, who also worked on preserving "The Castle," which the Fortune Society uses to providing transitional housing for formerly incarcerated individuals.

Community Board 9 member Brad Taylor suggested a "drop-dead" date on securing financing and moving forward with the plan.

"This project cannot go on forever," he said.

Community Board 9 chairwoman Georgiette Morgan-Thomas said this iteration of the project is in a critical phase.

"The more pressure we put on city agencies to get the money allocated the quicker it will get done," Morgan-Thomas said.

Will Ellis of the website AbandonedNYC, is one of the few people who have braved a trip inside the decrepit school in recent years. He said saving the building would "enrich the sense of history" in the neighborhood.

"But if I'm being honest, a part of me will miss the P.S. 186 I came to know," he added.