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Harlem's Renaissance Ballroom Beyond Restoration, Developers Say

By Gustavo Solis | January 16, 2015 1:57pm | Updated on January 19, 2015 8:57am
 Michael Henry Adams launched a one man protest against the demolition of the Renaissance Casino.
The Renaissance Casino
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HARLEM — There is no rebirth in the cards for the Renaissance Ballroom and Casino.

The historic event space on 137th Street and Adam Clayton Powell Boulevard, which has been vacant for 36 years, is too dilapidated and unsafe to be restored, developers told preservationists during a Community Board 10 meeting Thursday night.

So unsafe, in fact, that a worker broke his leg during an inspection when the floor collapsed.

“We sent in one inspector and our chief structural person and we had a floor collapse during the inspection,” said Meredith Marshall, a managing partner at BRP Development. “The inspector was knocked unconscious and our employee almost lost his leg.”

The Renny, as it used to be called, was the premier black event space in New York City during the Harlem Renaissance. It hosted championship boxing matches, big band concerts and housed a professional basketball team. Former Mayor David Dinkins was married there in 1953.

BRP bought the building in March 2014 and they hired a structural engineer to inspect the property. Engineers found trees growing in the building, the floor has collapsed on itself and the structure is unstable.

The building is so dangerous that a DOB inspector refused to go inside during when BRP was getting their demolition permit, Marshall added.

Preservationists were outraged when BRP filed a demolition permit with the Department of Buildings because the former owner, the Abyssinian Development Corporation, promised that the historic building’s facade would be preserved and incorporated into the design.

In 2007, ADC asked the Landmarks Preservation Commission not to landmark the building so that they could save the facade and build a 12-story building on top of it. As a result, the historic building was never landmarked.

“Anything short of this project fulfilling the promise made to this community in 2007 is a travesty,” said historian Michael Henry Adams.

Adams was arrested for protesting the demolition of the building in November.

BRP, which has won preservation awards for developments in Brooklyn, is going to try to preserve as much of the building as possible including the signs, mosaics and historic components that are still intact. But the facade is unsalvageable, Marshall said.

The 8-story, $70 million development that will replace the Renny will have a parking garage, an 18,000 square foot retail space and a 24,000 square foot community facility space. The building will have 134 units, 20 percent of which will be affordable at 60 percent Area Median Income, said Geoff Flurnoy, a managing partner at BRP.

That community facility space will feature a fellowship hall, multi-purpose event space for banquets and weddings, a performing arts space and a commercial kitchen. It will be owned by the Abyssinian Church. The church's real estate arm sold the Renny to BRP for $15 million.

When Abyssinian owned the building they invested more than $5 million to restore it, said Blondel Pinnock, chief lending officer at Carver Bank, which loaned Abyssinian the money.

The millions were spent on renderings, back taxes, and partial demolitions. After the market crashed no investors were willing to come in, Pinnock said.

Although the developers have the demolition permit, there is no set date for when the Renaissance Ballroom and Casino will be destroyed.

Some preservationists see this as an opportunity to come up with a solution.

“All we are asking is for a little bit of time to hold back the demolition of the building to look at other options,” Chet Whye, a local community activist, said.

The group, made up of preservationists, academics, ballroom dancers and basketball historians, is going to try to find a way to save the building by reaching out to elected officials, consulting restoration experts and raising money.

BRP agreed to meeting with the preservationists to find ways to salvage as much of the history and culture of the building as they can, Marshall said.

However, the developer is doubtful anything can be done about the facade at this point.

“In earnest, if the facade could be saved we are the group to save it,” he said. “It just can’t be saved. When you go to the doctor you don’t want to hear bad news but when you get bad news you have to deal with it.”