Sept. 7, 2018 By Nathaly Pesantez
A long-abandoned building on Barnett Avenue could soon be facing the wrecking ball as the city moves forward with its plans to build a middle school on the property.
The city filed plans with the Department of Buildings yesterday to demolish the two-story building at 38-04 48th St., where the School Construction Authority will be building a 697-seat middle school.
The filing, in addition, outline plans to preserve the south wall of the building, which would separate the school from the residential homes behind it.
While the City has yet to file building plans for the new school, the SCA has announced that it plans to construct a four to five story building for students in grades six to eight, with standard school features like a lunch room, “gymnatorium”, and rooms for science, music, and art. A ground-level playground will also be part of the school site.
The filing to demolish the existing structure signals another step forward in the middle school saga, as several in the community have called to preserve it, given its history as Clarence Stein’s Sunnyside Community Garage.
Others, however, say the building has long lost its historical markers, and that moving forward with a newly built and desperately needed middle school makes more sense.
The issue was debated by members of a community advisory group, established specifically to review the project. The group, made up of about 30 residents and preservationists who were appointed by Council Member Jimmy Van Bramer, have met twice since spring to give input to city officials on the project.
The group includes people like Debra McGowan, co-founder of the Sunnyside Woodside Middle School Project and a prominent advocate for the school, Denise Keehan-Smith, community board 2 chairperson, and Herbert Reynolds, president of the Sunnyside Gardens Preservation Alliance, which heavily advocated for the building’s preservation.
In the advisory group meetings, the SGPA noted that it does not oppose a school at the site, and repeatedly called for the building to be restored and re-used, according to McGowan.
Reynolds did not immediately respond to a request for comment. In a May online post, however, the SGPA wrote that the building, listed on the State and National Register of Historic places, is a “signature design by the chief architect of Sunnyside Gardens.”
“A new school can remedy the neglect this award-winning building has suffered in recent decades, and a restoration of the facades is the practical solution to make everyone happiest,” the group wrote.
But McGowan told the Sunnyside Post that the group was not persuasive enough in their stance during the meetings, and that the School Construction Authority had explained that preserving the building’s outer walls was not feasible for a variety of reasons based on analyses on the site.
“They’ve already gone through the state historical preservation office and have permission to tear down the building,” McGowan said.
The SCA, according to McGowan, said preserving the building’s walls would require added reinforcement, which would be costly and would take up more space on the lot. Additionally, to preserve the outer wall would require realignment work with new brick, which the agency does not feel it can properly match.
Above all, the SCA said its goal is to build a top notch school, and that the old walls would hinder its vision for a high quality building. The new school, the agency said, can incorporate elements of the original building in the design.
McGowan said she, like others in the committee, paid close attention to the viewpoints put forward by the SCA and preservationists, but believed the old building could not be saved if a quality school were to be built.
“It’s a charming brick building designed by a talented architect that is no longer in use as intended,” she said. “It needs so much care to make it stand up.”
She added that the building, while recognized by the government for its history, isn’t even part of the Sunnyside Gardens Historic District.
The school is still in the design phase, but an SCA rendering shows the bulk of the building will be on Barnett Avenue, with the playground on 48th Street.
It is unclear when construction will begin, although the SCA has told the advisory group that the school could open for September 2022.