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Landmark Commission Decries Demolition of 'Castle on the Concourse'

By Alice Speri | December 17, 2013 6:38pm

GRAND CONCOURSE The “Castle on the Concourse” might be safe for now after the city’s Landmark Preservation Commission strongly recommended that the city reconsider its proposal to demolish the 114-year-old building.

The former P.S. 31, affectionately known by locals as “castle” for its white, Gothic architecture, has sat vacant for nearly two decades and fallen into a level of disrepair that the Department of Buildings said is unsalvageable and dangerous.

But at a public hearing on Tuesday, the commission which designated architect Charles B. J. Snyder’s building a landmark in 1986 rebuked city officials for allowing the building to fall into disrepair, and called on them to give it a “second chance."

Damage at the former school which used to be one of the Bronx’s highest performers when structural issues forced it to close in 1997 include a collapsed roof and unstable or missing walls and fixtures, which were further damaged by Hurricane Sandy.  

“This is very sad,” said commission Chairman Robert Tierney, chastising the city for abandoning the building for so long. Other commissioners called the disrepair of the landmark a “disgrace” and a “travesty.” The commission’s recommendation to the city is only advisory, and the Department of Buildings has the ultimate say over the fate of the structure.

“We sit as part of a system that has failed this building and failed this community,” said Commissioner Michael Goldblum. “But obviously if the city deems this building unsafe it will take it down.”

City officials were adamant that demolition is the only solution. 

“It is absolutely a hazard to the public,” said Timothy Lynch, an assistant commissioner at the Department of Buildings, adding that the structure sits next to a playground, which has occasionally been reached by falling debris. “This is not a unilateral decision and we do not make it lightly.”  

Officials from the Department of Housing Preservation and Development and the Department of Citywide Administrative Services which took over the building from the Department of Education in 2011 support the call for demolition.

Several residents testified about the castle’s significance to the neighborhood.

“That school represents the skyline of the Bronx,” said LaTanya Gilliam, a 1986 graduate of P.S. 31, which was also named after abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison. “It was full of pride.”

Community advocates saw their attempts to save the building shot down by the city. Phillip Morrow, president of SoBro, the South Bronx economic-development agency, proposed to turn the building into affordable housing and workspace for local artists, including galleries and space for a film school. But the proposal was rejected over concerns that it would cost too much and be “too difficult.”

The group partnered with Artspace, a nonprofit developer that specializes in such redevelopment, and said they would finance the project through historic-building tax credits and sponsorship by Goldman Sachs’ Urban Investment Group.

Morrow, who had different engineers evaluate the building, contested the city’s account of the damage and its estimate of restoration costs.

“We have three engineers who said the building is not in any danger of falling down by any stretch of the imagination,” he said at the hearing. “We’ve renovated buildings in much worse conditions.”

Ed Garcia Conde, a community activist, launched an online campaign to “save P.S. 31.” Some 528 people including many former students signed his online petition.

“Just because it’s in the Bronx doesn't give those vultures the right to remove the landmark status for greed,” Pamela Brown, wrote in the comments to the online petition.  “We don’t see these Draconian methods inflicted on Manhattan landmarks.”

Another signatory, Sharan Rosen, called on Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr. her former student at P.S. 31 to save the building.

“I hope my former student, Bronx Borough President Reuben Diaz Jr., will stand behind us in trying to revive the school and the borough,” she wrote.

A spokesman for Diaz did not respond to a request for comment on Tuesday, but Diaz previously told DNAinfo that he was discouraged by the building’s abandonment.

“It broke my heart,” he said then. “But if it has to come down, it has to come down.”

Many residents and advocates fear that the 425 Grand Concourse site will fall into the hands of developers with little interest in the concerns of local residents. The 30-block area around P.S. 31 but not the lot itself was recently rezoned to make room for residential developments in a section of the borough that locals say is rapidly gentrifying.

Advocates also said that stripping a landmark of its protected status would set a troublesome precedent.

“It’s worth a lot of money to a potential developer,” said Conde. “The city is pretty much saying, ‘Forget about the landmark.’ Rather then spend money to fix it, they want to knock it down, sell it and make a profit.”

Community members hope the commission’s strong condemnation of the school’s proposed demolition and an incoming new administration might change the city’s plans.

“The castle on the Concourse is almost like our Coliseum, our Statue of Liberty,” said Marguerite Saint-Preux, also a former student at the school. “When we talk about the future of the Bronx, this structure should be a part of it.”