The facade of PS 31at the corner of Grand Concourse and 144th St.

PS 31 faces wrecking ball

The city’s buildings department and landmarks commission are at loggerheads over the fate of the historic Castle on the Concourse.

City engineers and housing officials will ask the Landmarks Commission to allow them to tear down PS 31, known locally as the Castle on the Concourse..
City engineers and housing officials will ask the Landmarks Commission to allow them to tear down PS 31, known locally as the Castle on the Concourse..

Landmarks commission calls for rescuing Concourse Castle

City engineers and housing officials want to tear “the Castle on the Concourse” down, but the Landmarks Preservation Commission says, “Not so fast.”

Abandoned and crumbling for years, the former PS 31 on the Concourse and East 144th Street is endangering public safety, the engineers insist.

At the November Meeting of Community Board 1, an engineer for the city Department of Buildings, Tim Lynch, told the board that PS 31 is in “pitiable condition,” and that the agency “feels strongly that the building must be demolished” to avoid a disaster.

But at a meeting of the landmarks commission on Dec. 17, the commissioners said the city should restore PS 31 rather than tearing it down. They scolded the buildings department for not doing enough to preserve the historic school since it was closed in 1997.

The commission concluded that the city failed to take steps to stave off the building’s deterioration over the years, and ruled that “demolition was not appropriate” and that “there could be an alternative” to razing it, said a spokeswoman, Elisabeth de Bourbon.

The Department of Buildings did not immediately respond to questions from the Herald about the landmarks commission’s criticisms. However, the commission’s finding is advisory only and it cannot overrule the buildings department.

In November, Lynch told the community board that homeless people routinely squat in the building, which has had no heat or plumbing for years. He said the city has to pump water out of the basement regularly. In addition, a retaining wall around the structure is unstable, he said.

Board 1 asked for assurances from the city that if the landmarked school is torn down, its replacement would benefit the neighborhood.

Its members voted 16-1 against the city’s plan to knock the building down without a plan to use the site. The board’s vote is advisory.

The elegant, steel and terra cotta building is one of many schools across the five boroughs designed by renowned architect C.B.J. Snyder around the turn of the 20th century. PS 31 was built in 1890.

“It is not the only one in the city we have like this, with a façade that is difficult to maintain,” Lynch said.

When Superstorm Sandy pelted New York in October 2012, it sent a massive chunk of the old school hurtling onto the sidewalk. No one was injured.

“If another storm like that happens, we can’t guarantee that the building’s going to be ok,” said Nivardo Lopez, Bronx director of community affairs for Mayor Michael Bloomberg.  “We don’t think the community can take that chance.”

Community board members insisted that whatever takes the place of PS 31 be planned with Mott Haven residents in mind.

Mott Haven-based SOBRo and a Minneapolis arts organization have presented plans to convert the building into apartments, but neither proposal made it past the planning phase.

“The building is not being recommended for demolition to build something else,” said Ted Weinstein, Bronx director for planning for the Department of Housing Preservation and Development. “A renovation plan is not physically and financially feasible,” he said.

Each apartment in a new building costs between $200,000 and $400,000 to build, Weinstein said. By contrast, new apartments in the PS 31 building would cost between $800,000 and $1 million each, and the building isn’t big enough to earn back an investment of that size.

“It is not appropriate for the city to spend that kind of money,” he said.

Board members expressed skepticism that the city would take their vote opposing the city’s plans into account.

“Why do we have to vote if this is advisory?” asked board member Mara Cosme. “It makes no sense to me.”

“It’s very difficult voting on something like this without the elected officials weighing in on our behalf,” said Arline Parks, chair of the board’s economic development committee.

Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr., a graduate of PS 31, has previously urged the city to preserve the building. He declined to comment on the city’s decision to demolish it.

Melrose community activist Ed Garcia Conde, addressed the landmarks commission and handed over 600 signatures from school alumni and other supporters who want to see the building restored.

Conde, who writes the blog Welcome2Melrose, questioned why city officials have been so eager to raze the building, and wondered whether funds being allocated to other big budget projects in the Bronx, such as FreshDirect, should instead be directed to upgrading the school.

“It seems like someone’s out to make money,” said Conde after the meeting. “Why is the city so adamant to raze a building many engineers have said can be saved?”

This story was updated on Dec. 19. 

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