The City Properties Committee of Community Board 11 was the scene of another heated debate on Monday, October 17 as board members and residents deliberated the merits of a plan by El Barrio’s Operation Fightback to develop an artists’ residence through a partnership with ArtSpace Projects, Inc.—a Minneapolis-based real estate firm specializing in housing for artists.
The location in question? 225 East 99th Street, a seemingly nondescript East Harlem address which happens to be the site of the landmark Public School 109.
Operation Fightback and ArtSpace are hoping to turn the former school, nestled between two housing projects, into an arts-specific complex with 66 affordable mixed units for low-income artists and a common ground-floor space intended for public exhibits and community meetings.
The rates for individual apartments would be set at, or below, 60% of Area Median Income, with monthly fees ranging from $550-600 for a studio to $816-$979 for three bedrooms. Affordability will be made possible through government-sponsored low-income housing tax credits that guarantee the rental rates for at least 30 years.
Funding for the $25 million project will come from various sources; $5.3 million in private equity (including a $1.5 million grant from the Andy Warhol Foundation), and $20.2 million from historic tax credits, housing trust funds, and low-income housing subsidies.
According to ArtSpace Executive Director Greg Handberg, his agency will retain a 60% controlling interest, while Operation Fightback would be a 40% managing partner. Community-minded architects Raymond Plumey and Victor Morales have also been drafted to take part in the project.
Morales has designed a number of affordable housing sites for Operation Fightback and done similar work for other agencies on the Lower East Side and Brooklyn, while Plumey brings a record of historic preservation. In addition to the 106th Street Julia de Burgos Latino Cultural Center, he designed the renovated Lexington Avenue building which holds the historic mural “The Spirit of East Harlem.”
While Handberg asserted that 50% of the tenants would come from East Harlem, it remains to be seen what mechanisms, if any, the developers will employ to determine the artistic credentials of their applicants. Similar housing projects require candidates to register with the city’s Department of Cultural Affairs—an often complicated and costly procedure which requires artists to submit a portfolio of their work.
Although questions remain about who will ultimately get to live in the residence, Rosado pledged that the lottery would be an open process. “Community Board 11 will be in invited to observe,” he said.
“I think this project will help us to maintain our identity and culture,” he added. This is affordable housing that’s affordable to the people that live here, using space that’s been vacant for 10 years. We feel this is a win-win situation for the neighborhood.”
To bolster his case, Rosado collected over 200 petition signatures from area residents through a campaign entitled “Revive 109.” He also gathered letters of support from community leaders such as Taina Traverso, Founder and Executive Director of Applause; Fernando Salicrup, Executive Director of the Puerto Rican Workshop/Taller Boricua; and Hilda Vives-Vasquez, Executive Director of the 116th Street Block Association.
Despite local support for the project, community opposition appears to be mounting. Veteran activist Gloria Quiñones, in particular, has begun a letter-writing campaign against the proposal. “On what basis did the Board of Education give up this space when our school-age population continues to grow?” writes Quiñones. “If this community and its educational leaders have determined that there is no need for educational space, who determined that artist housing is the priority for this community? This unique building sits on very, very valuable land and amid very vulnerable public housing. Who will own the land? Has a community land trust been considered as an ownership option?”
Plumey disagrees. “The battle to save this building has been fought since 2000, first as a school and then to at least preserve the structure for another use of need to the community. Saving the building for artist housing is consistent with efforts to preserve the architectural and cultural history of this neighborhood. I consider it a victory that we have found someone interested in helping us develop this landmark building. Low-cost work and living space for struggling artists will be a great benefit to the community.”
Still, Quiñones and others continue to question the process by which the NYC Department of Education transferred the property to the Department of Housing Preservation and Development, and exactly how ArtSpace and Operation Fightback ended up as sole-source bidders on the site.
Despite the conflict, the City Properties Committee endorsed the proposal and site control approval was granted at the full board meeting the following day. The project will now go through the standard uniform land use review procedures, and will be put forth for a land disposition vote in the City Council early next year. Construction will most likely begin in 2007, with the artists’ residence opening sometime in 2008.
About Public School 109
Public School 109 was designed by NYC Board of Education Architect Charles B.J. Snyder in 1898. Like most of Snyder’s work, the five-story structure was built in the shape of the letter “H” as an inexpensive, mid-block site.
In 1999, the NYC School Construction Authority began preparations to demolish the school. East Harlem residents Gwen Goodwin and Raymond Plumey then formed the Coalition to Save PS 109, which successfully prevented the building’s demolition and stopped the removal of precious architectural artifacts by representatives from Demolition Depot and Urban Archeology.
Although the coalition had successfully lobbied the NYC Landmarks Conservancy to obtain an engineering report proving the school’s structural integrity, similar efforts for restoration proved futile and the building remained empty—attracting little interest until now.
ArtSpace was established in Minneapolis in 1979 to create, foster and preserve affordable space for artists and arts organizations. In expanding its mission to incorporate the planning and development of performing arts centers, museums, other arts facilities, and entire arts districts, the agency has become the nation’s leading nonprofit real estate developer for the arts. ArtSpace serves artists and arts organizations of all disciplines, cultures, and economic circumstances through projects that enhance the cultural and economic vitality of the surrounding community, and which often help transform unused or underutilized historic buildings into fully functioning facilities.
About El Barrio’s Operation Fightback
El Barrio’s Operation Fightback is an economic development agency founded in 1983 that renovates and manages affordable housing and provides social services and advocacy support, including tenant counseling and educational and after-school services to low income families in East Harlem. Since 1991, Operation Fightback has renovated 30 buildings and created 378 affordable rental apartments. In 1995, the agency successfully sponsored and marketed 59 two- and three-family homes to first-time buyers in East Harlem. Most recently, Operation Fightback has begun new construction of La Casa Quinta, an affordable apartment complex with 42 rental units.