01 February 2011

Old Erasmus Hall May Be Saved


Two years ago, reports were all about how the original Erasmus Hall building, a 1786 structure which sits in the courtyard of the larger, more familiar Flatbush building called Erasmus Hall High School, was in danger of falling down. The Department of Education was apparently uninteresting in this tragedy.

Today, comes good news that the abandoned, 225-year-old building may be saved. The Wall Street Journal states that "a new, $300,000 matching grant from the state Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation is likely to jump-start restoration of the building, which once housed the oldest chartered high school in New York and counts Founding Fathers John Jay and Alexander Hamilton among its early benefactors."
Why does it always have to be a matching grant? Just give them the damn money. There's no time to waste.

2 comments:

fifilaru said...

At least there is a grant. I just don't get why we let old buildings fall down?!

Upstate Johnny G said...

fifi, I think it's called "demolition by neglect". The idea is that instead of revealing plans for a new building on the site of an existing historic one, you just stop all maintenance on the historic building but keep paying the taxes and any other recurring charges. You let the building decay until a friendly engineer will sign off that the building is on the verge of collapse - a hazard to public safety - and that it "would cost more to repair than it would to tear down and build anew." That gives you a powerful economic argument that most government regulators will yield before. Preservationists will lament the imminent destruction but even their comments will show that they accept the idea that the this particular building is beyond saving. Then they will say that this should never happen again, that they will be more vigilant in the future and will expose these schemes while there's still time to save the building. And then they will go back to sleep, or get busy with their own lives, or just assume that "someone else" is watching the other historic buildings in the nabe. And then it happens all over again. Repeat ad infinitem. ETERNAL vigilance is required to stop this cycle.

The subtext to all of this is that when financial gain has succeeded or replaced all other values in a society, then whatever makes the most profit WILL be done. That seems to be the state of affairs under Bloomie.

How to turn this around? I'm not sure. Change the neighborhood's perception of "old" (with connotations of "dirty", "run down", etc) to "historic" (meaning "hip", "cool", "restored", "warm", "inviting", etc). Organize a nabe committee to identify historic buildings. Research them (I think you can do simple title searches online in NYC) to learn their history. Find out who the current owner is. Do some research to see what the owner has done with other properties they own, if they own any. That will give you a good idea of what their plans are for the building you're concerned with. If they have a history of buying corner lots, knocking down the existing building and putting up an ugly modern structure housing a drugstore or a bank you can be pretty sure that's what they have in mind for your neighborhood. Forewarned is forearmed. Then try to head them off at the pass.

Maybe you'll be lucky, and the owner will be an individual with no demolition in mind. In that case, let them know how much the building means to you as a neighborhood fixture. Write letters. If there's a store on the first floor, patronize it! Even if you donate the stuff you buy there to charity, shop there. Make the store so successful that the owner can raise the rent w/o making the store move out.

And here's a radical idea: if there's a really key building the nabe really couldn't stand to lose, why not get some neighbors together to buy it? If there's one lesson to be learned from perusing Brooks' list of lost businesses it's this: if the business doesn't own the building it's in, it can go at any time. Own the property, control the property. It's as simple as that (put simplistically). It's very hard to use government regulatory bodies to control the use of private real estate. Example? Atlantic Yards. 'nuff said.

Don;t mourn. Organize.