Two Weeks In: Manny Cantor Center at the Educational Alliance

Inside the Manny Cantor Center's fitness facility. Photo courtesy: Educational Alliance.

Inside the Manny Cantor Center’s fitness facility. Photo courtesy: Educational Alliance.

It’s been a couple of weeks since the Educational Alliance opened the Manny Cantor Center inside its gut-renovated flagship building at 197 East Broadway.  We stopped by yesterday for a progress check with Rabbi Joanna Samuels, the center’s executive director.

The $55 million project represents one of the biggest transformations ever undertaken by the 125-year old social services agency, one of the Lower East Side’s most venerable institutions.  The Manny Cantor Center, named for the father of a former board chairman, includes a 7,000 square foot fitness center, a sun-splashed sixth floor community space, as well as facilities for preschool, Head Start, teen and senior programs and an art school. The lofty goal was to re-establish the historic building as a neighborhood hub in an economically mixed community.

While the center is open for business, it’s still a partial construction zone.  The early childhood programs will be moving into new classrooms during the next week.  Then contractors will go to work on those temporary quarters the preschool was using, creating a new art school in the garden-level space.  They’ll also be reopening the teen center and basketball court, hopefully by the end of May.

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Photo courtesy: Educational Alliance.

Photo courtesy: Educational Alliance.

The Manny Cantor Center is designed to be accessible to both the agency’s traditional low-income clientele as well as an increasing population of middle and high income earners who have moved to the Lower East Side in the past 15 years.  For this reason, the fitness center is offering a $10/month rate for families already being served in programs such as Head Start.  The market rate for individuals, below $60, was set to be competitive with other comparable fitness centers. (For specifics and family rates, people are encouraged to contact a membership coordinator.)  “We’re not in the business of checking people’s tax returns or anything like that,” Samuels explained, “but we already have a huge population that we’re serving that we know qualifies for this ($10) rate.”

The objective, creating a center that fosters connections among all types of LES groups, is an ambitious one. During our conversation, Samuels, said the gym facility is an obvious starting point. “Fitness is a great equalizer in some ways,” she said, “and it’s sort of the right level of interaction for some people. I feel very comfortable about the way the fitness center will drive those connections.” But it’s not the only place where she hopes the community will interact. Another is the art school, where a sliding fee scale will also be put into place.  She sees future opportunities for shared experiences among the kids in the preschool and Head Start programs.

Photo: Educational Alliance.

Photo: Educational Alliance.

The community space is another focal point.  The versatile 3,100 square foot room was an addition to the top of the building.  It’s glass-enclosed, boasting great views of Seward Park, the public library and The Forward Building, and features a large balcony. During the day, seniors eat lunch there. Weekly dance lessons, concerts for children, sunrise yoga and evening spinning parties are planned. It will also be the setting for the center’s community programming schedule.

The idea is not to become a downtown version of the 92nd Street Y. Instead, Samuels explained, “we think what (people on the Lower East Side) want is a reflection of what is so vital and exciting about this neighborhood. We’re looking at who are the artists and performers and thinkers and change makers in this community and how do we provide a forum for them to entertain and share ideas and build excitement for the community.”

educational alliance exterior

Photo Courtesy: Educational Alliance.

Photo Courtesy: Educational Alliance.

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Photo courtesy: Educational Alliance.

The Educational Alliance’s headquarters actually consisted of the original 1890 structure and two adjacent buildings.  A big challenge for Platt Byard Dovell White Architects was to stitch together the three individual buildings, creating new passageways, while modernizing the entire complex. The LEED-certified, 103,000 square-foot building was redesigned to take full advantage of natural light.  Even the stairwell features a wall of glass.  Large, arched windows covered up for safety reasons decades ago were restored, while most of the building’s historic interior was left intact.

The transformation at the Educational Alliance is, of course not just about a building.  Earlier this month, Alan van Capelle took over as CEO from Robin Bernstein, who spearheaded the renovation project.  Samuels hasn’t had much time to reflect, as she gets the new facility up-and-running.  But she had no trouble articulating what’s going to be required to make the Manny Cantor Center a success.  “It will be a success if people in the community see it as a hub for their own recreation, for their own needs for education, their own needs for community and where they see the diversity of this neighborhood reflected.”