Last month, the Educational Alliance announced it planned a top-to-bottom, multi-million dollar renovation of its flagship building at 197 East Broadway. Today we have the first interview with Robin Bernstein, the organization’s longtime president and CEO, about the big project.
Now hanging in the lobby of the 122 year old building, there are several large blow-up drawings (including the one you see above) showing what the facility will look like when it’s completed in a couple of years. It’s an exciting moment for the Educational Alliance and for the community. There’s no doubt a face lift is long overdue.
But at the same time, the plans are already creating some controversy, especially among students and teachers of the agency’s venerable art school. During our conversation, Bernstein shared new details about the project, addressed the concerns and talked about the thinking behind the overhaul, which has been in-the-works for several years.
From the looks of it, the work has already begun. In the past couple of weeks, crews quickly completed extensive repairs to the support structure under the sidewalk on East Broadway. Bernstein said the work was not actually part of the building-wide renovation plan but a mandatory $3 million job that needed to be completed whether the larger project went ahead or not. Nonetheless, the work being done to fix the decaying sidewalk vault hints at what’s happening throughout the old building. The reality is, Bernstein told me, 197 East Broadway in its current condition is “not sustainable” into the future.
The decision to renovate followed a comprehensive strategic planning process several years ago. Everything was on the table, including the possibility of moving the large non-profit, founded on the Lower East Side in 1889, somewhere else. “The decision was that this was the perfect location for the Educational Alliance for the next 120 years but that this building was not sustainable for 120 years,” Bernstein explained. (We) felt really strongly that it was our obligation to leave this place in better shape than we found it.”
An architectural firm, Platt Byard Duvell and White, envisioned a dramatic renovation, that included adding several floors on top of the old structure (the plans even called for an indoor swimming pool). The price tag was estimated at $75 million. But then the economy and the real estate market collapsed and the Educational Alliance’s grand plans went on the back burner.
A year ago, the board was feeling confident enough to at least ask the architect to draw up a scaled down version of the project. “They came back with what we thought was an extraordinary plan,” Bernstein said, “something that really knocked our socks off.” Later this month, on September 27th, the firm will present the board with a final number (it’s expected to be about $47 million). If there are no surprises, it’s likely the directors will vote to move forward.
In order not to jeopardize key government funding, Bernstein explained, the Educational Alliance had to move quickly. Shovels need to be in the ground by the end of the year. This meant reaching out to the organization’s many programs and departments — preparing to run a large social service agency while, at the same time, an antiquated building is gutted and totally rebuilt.
There were difficult choices to be made. “There’s a finite amount of space in the building and we wanted to maintain and expand certain core programs,” Bernstein said. For example, there was a strong desire to expand early childhood programs, which typically wait-lists 400 kids.
Platt Byard Duvell and White specializes in modernizing old buildings with an eye towards preservation (197 East Broadway is not a New York City landmark but is in an historic district). One of their goals is to return the building, wherever possible, to the way it looked 122 years ago. This will include restoring large street-level bay windows, which were covered up in the 1960’s due to concerns about neighborhood crime.
Early childhood programs will be moved to the ground floor. Three new high speed elevators will be installed. There will be an open, bright staircase leading to the upper floors (rather than the dark, enclosed stairwell visitors must now use). The plans call for a new wellness center, including a full gym and two flexible exercise studios (but no pool).
The 1889 Mazer Theater, where Mark Twain, Sholom Aleicham, and Zero Mostel once performed, will be replaced with a much more versatile community room seating up to 300 people. The space will be used for conventional theatrical performances, but it will also act as a movie theater and a meeting room with dividing walls. A large commercial kitchen will be installed, as well. The teen center and gymnasium will both stay essentially where they are, on the lower level. There will be adult classrooms (something the Educational Alliance has always lacked).
In the more efficiently designed building, the architects have created 40,000 square feet of additional space. But there wasn’t room for everything. Some administrative offices, for instance, will move off-site. But it’s the plans for the art school that, even before the board gives its final okay, have riled longtime Educational Alliance students.
Several weeks ago, rumors began flying that the art school would be scaled back in the renovation and possibly even eliminated altogether. Angry students and teachers began organizing. They created a web site and a Facebook page. Just before the Labor Day holiday, they showed up in force at an informational meeting at the art school to voice their concerns.
What the students heard from administrators did not allay their fears. At the meeting, they were told the art school would be moved from its fifth floor space, which benefits from great natural light, into smaller quarters on the lower level. The darkroom and welding studio were to be eliminated. Most disturbing to many students, it was explained that the entire school would go on hiatus for well over a year during the renovation. There were questions about what would become of the teaching staff during this time.
The art school, founded in 1895, is the oldest institution of its kind in this country. Sculptor Jo Davidson, painter and photographer Ben Shahn and Mark Rothko were among the noteworthy instructors and students. Present-day students are worried this legacy is at risk.
Miriam Applebaum, a photography student, believes it’s wrong to eliminate one of the very few darkrooms available for public use downtown. She’s also concerned no arrangements have been made for artists to continue working. And more broadly, she told me, “We need to be careful they don’t take out the soul from the Educational Alliance.”
Michael Macioce, who teaches photography classes, may very well be out of a job at the Educational Alliance. He said there’s obviously a need to refurbish the building, but if administrators want to make changes to the art school, he said, there should be “an open conversation” and “students should have a voice.” The bottom line, he argued, is that the art school, part of a non-profit organization set up to serve the community generations ago, “should not be diminished.”
During our interview, Bernstein said she wants to be as forthcoming as possible about the plans. Students have made it very clear they are unhappy that more information was not made available sooner. Once the board votes, Bernstein promised, the Educational Alliance will be sharing a lot more details about the renovation and the interim plan during the construction period. For the moment, she wants students to know that the organization is dedicated to keeping the art school strong:
Preserving the art school was critical to us. It’s one of our core programs. Our art gallery sits in the center of this building because we want our children and our seniors to walk up through the art gallery in the couse of the day. We think being exposed to art and participating in art is part of being a good American citizen, which is what this agency has always been about. We are deeply commited to having a community art school. We are deeply commited to the highest quality art instruction. We are going to continue that at very affordable prices.
At the same time, she said, tough choices had to be made when administrators and the board were deciding what was best for the organization down the road:
We know there are people deeply disappointed by the choices that we made… We worked closeky with the director of our art school, who is an artist himself, as to what would be the best use of the space that we could assign to the art school, and we hope we made the right choices, and we hope after being here for 122 years the community will hang in there with us, trust our choices. I believe in my guts that this is going to be a fabulous art school when we reopen. We are one of the last community art schools that exist and we feel really proud of that and deeply committed to that, but we have to make choices.
The art school was scheduled to close during phase two of the project, which is expected to begin next spring or early summer. It would remain shuttered for about 18 months. But based on the complaints from students, Bernstein said her team is looking for ways to keep at least some of the classes going in the interim:
We had originally stated that the art school would go on hiatus. The board and the senior staff had made a commitment that those programs that we thought were truly essential, like daycare, senior programs, where people would lose their jobs if we didn’t provide the daycare or seniors wouldn’t have a hot lunch if we didn’t open the senior center, we felt that those were critical programs and we would find (alternative) space and keep those going. We believe the art school is really core to the mission of the Educational Alliance but we didn’t feel that it was the same kind of essential program to run during the phase 2 and phase 3 (of construction)… We’ve heard from the community in the last couple of weeks and we’re rethinking whether or not there are any options for us to run some art classes in some of our other facilities during this period. We heard them and we are going to work really hard and hopefully together with the students and the art teachers if there is any interim plan to keep some of the art school going during the hiatus. I can’t make any promises but we’re open to trying to do something.
During the renovation project, the Educational Alliance is moving senior programs, the teen center and the administrative staff across the street into the old Bialystoker office building at 232 East Broadway. The organization operates 24 other locations on the Lower East Side. Some programs might find temporary homes in those facilities. Bernstein said it’s going to be a challenging couple of years. But in the long run, she argued, the project is a big plus for the whole community:
We know that for our staff and for the community this is going to be an inconvenience for the next 22 months. We know that. We are trying as best we can to make it as easy as possible and to communicate about it as best as we can. We hope people will trust that we are trying to do a really important thing for this community. That is our goal.