News | West Harlem

Preservationists fight for historic P.S. 186

  • BREAKDOWN | P.S. 186 has been abandoned for over three decades. This photo from 2008 shows the decaying interior. This month, Walter South, chair of CB9’s Landmarks & Preservation Committee, has been working to fight for its preservation, but has faced many roadblocks.

Walter South is trying to save a historic building, but a complex bureaucracy is stopping him at every turn.

South, chair of Community Board 9’s Landmarks & Preservation Committee, mobilized local residents this month to call for the preservation of P.S. 186, a public schoolhouse on 145th Street between Amsterdam and Broadway that has been vacant since it closed in 1975.

But his coalition seeking to preserve the decaying building hit a major roadblock at Thursday’s CB9 full board meeting in Harlem.

In its deteriorating condition, P.S. 186 was sold in 1986 to the M.L. Wilson Boys and Girls Club, a nonprofit organization dedicated to providing space for local youth. During this transaction, the building was subject to deed restrictions for 25 years, which would limit what the new proprietors could do with the property. But these restrictions are set to expire in just 11 months, which will allow the Boys and Girls Club to do whatever it wishes with the property—including demolish it altogether.

Giselle Shorter, executive director for the club, told Spectator in October that the members were planning to redevelop the entire site into a mixed use complex with housing, community space, a new club for the organization, and potentially a public school.

And in light of the approaching deed restriction deadline—which will give the Club the opportunity to redevelop the property—South has upped his calls for P.S. 186’s preservation at recent CB9 meetings. On Thursday, he was supported by many community-based groups, including the Historic District Council and the New York Landmarks Conservancy, who both urged the board to help preserve the building.

But the layered community board system has put a serious strain on his effort.

He wrote an internal committee resolution urging the building’s preservation, which passed unanimously in the Landmarks Preservation Committee several weeks ago. But his ambitions were stalled last week when CB9’s Executive Committee, composed of the CB9 officers and the chairs of the standing committees, voted down the resolution by a narrow vote of 8 to 7. This prevented it from appearing on the agenda for a vote at Thursday’s general board meeting.

Had it passed the general board meeting, the resolution to preserve the historic site would have been adopted—and the board would have moved forward with an effort to stop the demolition.
South felt that the executive board was precluding the general board from considering the issue, so he took legal action.

“The whole point of taking legal action in the first place was to resolve the fact that the executive board is not a gatekeeper for the [general] board,” South said.

He conferred with a lawyer, who contacted Manhattan Borough president Scott Stringer’s office. Because CB9’s bylaws don’t address this kind of situation, Stringer’s office responded that the long-standing procedure is the default process, South said.

So the Executive Committee kept it off Thursday’s agenda altogether.

But South had another plan in mind.

“When the adoption for the agenda comes up at the general board meeting, they ask for the approval of the agenda, at which point I’m going to state that I’d like to amend it to include the resolution,” South said in an interview several days prior to the meeting.

He did just that at Thursday’s meeting, but CB9 chair Pat Jones said that in order for the resolution to be considered, the general board would have to vote on whether to overturn the executive board’s ruling. In another narrow vote following a heated debate, the general board voted to uphold the executive board’s decision, and South’s resolution was shut down again.

“I guarantee you I’ll be on the phone with the Borough president’s legal counsel tomorrow morning,” Jones said to a laughing audience, but added on a more serious note, “I see no reason to believe that this motion can’t come back next month.”

South said he plans on bringing the resolution up for a vote once again at next month’s meeting.

There were no representatives from the Boys and Girls Club at the full board CB9 meeting or the Landmarks Committee meeting two weeks ago.

“I’m going to discuss this with my lawyer,” South said, adding, “This is absurd.”

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