The New York City Parks Department is taking the first tentative steps in possibly redeveloping the Baruch Bathhouse, a building that has been shuttered for more than four decades. At a public meeting last week, community members urged city officials to restore the historic structure, New York’s first public bathhouse, as a community center.
During a presentation before Community Board 3’s parks committee, the officials said they’d like to put out a Request for Expressions of Interest (RFEI) for the bathhouse in the the next three weeks or so. An RFEI is less specific and less formal than a Request for Proposals (RFP), and often does not actually lead to a development plan.
Deputy Parks Commissioner Alyssa Konon said, “We would like to start a conversation with you, the board, and anyone else you would like us to talk to, about the Baruch Bathhouse, which has been boarded up for 43 years.” She cautioned that the project would be costly and complex. “We would like to talk with you,” said Konon, “about what it might be in the future, which is a hard project, I just want to be upfront that this is a major initiative to undertake to make something happen here.”
The Baruch Bathhouse, located at 326 Delancey St., dates back to 1901. The original portion of the building was called the Rivington Street Public Baths and included indoor and outdoor bathing pools, 45 showers and five soaking tubs for men, and 22 showers for women. It was dedicated to Dr. Simon Baruch in 1917, and an extension was added in 1940, giving the structure a foot print of around 7,000 square feet.The Baruch Houses, the city’s largest public housing development, were built up around the bathhouse in the 1950s. In the depths of New York City’s financial crisis in 1975, the building was closed and sealed off with concrete.
In 2001, the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) conducted an interior inspection of the building. It found evidence of serious structural problems, corroded beams and steel columns, mold, trees growing inside and even sticking through the roof, rats and flooding in the basement. The inspection determined that, “the structural condition of the bathhouse building has deteriorated to an extent that it is not practical or economically feasible to undertake renovation.” The report recommended demolition, with the land, “reclaimed for future planning and use.”
While the building is located on NYCHA property, it is mapped as parkland, and administered by the Parks Department. In the past, there have been many calls from the neighborhood to turn the building into a community center for kids and seniors. A community center, however, is not an approved parkland use, said Konon. If that’s what it is decided the building should become, the Parks Department would likely team up with another city agency to develop the project.
During the meeting, Konon was asked whether the city wants to tear the building down. “Based on the 2001 inspection,” she responded, “we believe that’s probably what needs to be done. However, if somebody wants to respond with some ideas around either restoring the building, or building on the historical elements there, of course, we’re open to that.” The city officials said the building, which likely contains lead paint, would probably cost around $2 million to demolish.
Konon said the city is receptive to different ideas, and welcomes concepts that would also lead to improvements of the Baruch Playground (the bathhouse sits on the southern end of the park). The playground was last renovated in 2001. The city is currently planning to renovate the park’s public bathrooms at a cost of $1.2 million.
Quite a few local residents showed up to speak in favor of restoring the building (known as the “White House”), and establishing a community center inside. In their eyes, the city must right a wrong that occurred a generation ago when New York turned its back on the Lower East Side.
One local activist, Naomi Pena, had an especially strong reaction to photos in the presentation showing the interior devastation. “Looking at those pictures made me incredibly sad,” said Pena, “because that building was clearly amazing, and the city allowed it to get into that condition. What’s more upsetting, in my opinion, the resources were purposely taken away from this neighborhood because we were poor and no one cared.” Referring to the gentrification that has occurred in the past 25 years, she added, “So now that this neighborhood has become trendy and everyone wants to move in, we want to look at these buildings and do something nice with them.” Pena said the city should own up to what it did back in 1975 and finally restore the building for use by the existing community.
Another resident speaking her mind was Jasmin Sanchez, a former City Council candidate and lifelong resident of the Baruch Houses. For many years, she said, residents have been advocating to reactivate the building. Sanchez and others presented their ideas to CB3 a few years ago, and submitted a petition with nearly 7,000 signatures. “This space,” said Sanchez, “has to be landmarked. That’s the only way we’re going to preserve what the building was intended for. It was a community space.”
Baruch Houses resident Damaris Reyes, executive director of Good Old Lower East Side (GOLES), said the community must be meaningfully involved in future planning for the Baruch Bathhouse. “Would you be open,” she asked Parks Department officials, “to a stakeholders committee of sorts, probably designated by the community board, that would include residents and other leaders, who participate in the selection process?”
They said it would not be possible due to city rules that protect the confidentiality of RFEI/RFP applicants. Reyes, however, pointed out that a committee, appointed by Community Board 3, was set up several years ago to represent local interests in the awarding of a contract to build in the former Seward Park Urban Renewal Area.
“There is precedent,” said Reyes. “It has been done. It was done with Essex Crossing. It’s being done with NYCHA. You could go a long way towards soothing some of the fears and making sure that the community is happy with the (outcome).”
Konon said that the city would not award a contract based on the responses from the RFEI. After applications are received, officials will return to CB3 to go over the best options. If there are strong ideas, a formal Request for Proposals would then be issued.
There’s been talk in the past about using the site for new affordable housing construction. That could not occur, said Konon, without approval from the State Legislature. NYCHA is expected to build mixed-income housing on parcels around the Baruch Houses. It’s already reviewing proposals for new senior housing on the current site of a Baruch parking lot.