The Castle on the Concourse is doomed. Had any other owner of a designated landmark abandoned his property to the elements like this, the Landmarks Preservation Commission would have sued him for “demolition by neglect.” But here the commission is helpless. The owner is the City of New York, and while the city fully expects owners of designated properties – private homeowners, businesses, landlords, or institutions – to adhere to standards set by the LPC, the city exempts itself from any such regulation. In such cases, the Landmarks Commission is only advisory, its pronouncements mere opinion.
Public School 31, one of the dozens of magnificent C.B.J. Snyder schools built across the city, opened in 1899. The Landmarks Commission designated this proud Collegiate Gothic school, located on the Grand Concourse at East 144th Street in the Bronx, in 1986, as the borough was just shaking off its reputation as the poster-child of urban decline.
Sadly, designation is not enough to assure the survival of a public building. After badly bungling a repair project, the Board of Education shuttered the school in 1997. For going on two decades, this proud monument to a city’s commitment to educating its children was permitted to rot. Now this landmark is slated for demolition.
The de Blasio administration has announced that the historic school must make way for affordable housing. The best that Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr. can say is that the pending demolition “is a moment of great sadness for so many neighborhood residents.” But, he adds, the city should “make the best of this opportunity.”
This is not a moment of sadness, but of shame. Not an opportunity, but an insult. Destroying a solid and exquisitely ornamented public building tells residents that they have no connection to their city’s past, that the city’s past is irrelevant to them. Undoubtedly, residents will feel the loss of this landmark, regardless of what is built in its place.
Was this the only choice, or the cheapest choice? In its advisory report, the Landmarks Commission urged that a last effort be made at adaptive reuse; the Department of Buildings, however, determined it is unsound and must come down. The building’s terrible condition is not necessarily terminal, and the problems are likely more cosmetic than structural.
There are alternatives to demolition (and dozens of Snyder schools still function as schools). P.S. 186, a Snyder school in Harlem, is being transformed into about 80 mixed-income apartments, with the Boys & Girls Club of Harlem installed in new quarters on the ground floor. Dattner Architects is doing a magnificent job, and the local residents are pleased and proud.
In East Harlem, P.S. 109, once abandoned and derelict like the school in the Bronx, now holds 89 affordable live/work units for artists, with additional space for local arts organizations. The price tag was $52 million. What will it cost to demolish P.S. 31 and construct a new building? Not incidentally, adaptive reuse also provides the benefit of recycling an old building.
By demolishing this landmark, the de Blasio administration hopes to demonstrate its commitment to providing affordable housing. But as the example of the Snyder schools in Harlem show, historic preservation and affordable housing are not natural enemies. Unless the de Blasio administration pronounces them to be.
Make no mistake. P.S. 31 is not doomed because there is no alternative, or because there is a shortage of creative ideas. No, this designated city-owned landmark is doomed because its owner displayed a disgraceful dereliction of stewardship. Still, the de Blasio could rectify this inherited situation and insert new housing into the proud old building.
Jeffrey A. Kroessler is a member of the Steering Committee of the City Club.