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Alternative Plan to Save St. Paul’s Proposed to Village Board

It was a full house as residents and the board of trustees listened to the Committee to Save St. Paul’s and Garden City Historical Society present an alternative plan that would save St. Paul’s School from demolition. The proposal calls to establish a conservancy and would require an $8 million preservation and renovation of the building’s exterior and rehabilitation of major rooms on the first floor and chapel, which they say would cost the same or even less than the demolition.

CSSP President Peter Negri called St. Paul’s “the most significant piece of real estate in the Village of Garden City,” and outlined his reasons that the structure should be preserved. During the presentation, Negri showed photographs of the building’s interior, which has not been occupied in almost 17 years. He explained the Committee’s mission is to “develop a reasonable, realistic and affordable plan to preserve St. Paul’s for public use.” Among the most important aspects of preservation would be to maintain public control; stabilize the building; preserve historic features where possible; and allow public use within the building. He also stated that the plan must prove financially acceptable to the majority and be in full compliance with the Village Building Code.

Negri said that if the village accepted the proposal, work could begin immediately with a projected end date of 11 months. In addition, Negri emphasized that, as a conservancy, the organization would have access to multiple grants and could receive tax-deductible contributions. He estimated that he has already had fundraising offers of $250,000 that could reach $1 million.

In preparing the plan, the CSSP enlisted the expertise of Bill Sullivan, formerly of Sullivan and Nickel, and architect Stephen Tilly, both of whom are well-versed in historic preservation and code compliance. Sullivan has 41 years in the construction industry and has managed projects on Long Island and the early construction of Radio City Musical Hall and John Jay College of Criminal Justice. Sullivan stated that one of the goals of the plan was to do the minimal work to stabilize the structure and to develop a life-safety plan to protect the people who use it, as well as the staff and the building itself. The CSSP also called for the plan to protect first-responders to address any emergencies in the building and to protect stakes for the community for public purposes.

The alternate plan would allow for complete preservation of the exterior of the building, including a full roof, windows, pointing, brick and masonry where necessary. In addition, fire protection would be needed throughout the building as well as hazardous material abatement. Rehabilitation would include major rooms on the first floor and the chapel; a creation of new mechanical equipment rooms to service public space; and seal off upper floors for possible future use.

Mayor Robert J. Rothschild asked Sullivan what the cost of the renovation will give to the community. “I think this gets you a watertight building that will remain watertight. I think you preserve the interior of the building. I think you cut your operating costs down,” Sullivan replied, adding, “You’re buying time and saving the building.” Trustee Nicholas Episcopia asked if the CSSP would be willing to have a cost analysis done by architects and engineers of the village’s choosing “to see whether or not these costs are valid and will hold up,” he explained.

Negri responded, “I guess we’d like to take it one step at a time. At this stage, we are here to present a plan. If there’s interest in the plan, we’ve  already spent some funds to date, but I wouldn’t want to answer a firm ‘yes’ or ‘no’ at this point.” Sullivan added, “Would I have a problem defending these numbers to an outside group? Not a problem,” Sullivan said. “In 11 months, you’ll be able to occupy that space.”

Garden City resident Frank McDonough, who worked for 15 years at Goldman Sachs, spoke about the structure and financing of the plan. “It’s not a new concept that we’re talking about here. We’re talking about how to save a particular area,” he said. McDonough recalled when the village converted the Garden City dump into what is now the garden city community park. He said the project essentially took a landfill and incinerator and transformed it into a field and pool, adding to home values over time. “In contrast to former efforts, where you had to do the entire building, we’re doing what every homeowner in Garden City does when they do a renovation. You are not building what you want, you are building what you can afford at the pace which you can afford it and that’s the entire concept here,” McDonough explained.

In McDonough’s closing remarks, he asked residents to consider whether adding additional open space after the demolition will yield long-term returns on the investment. “Does that 7 acres of new grass add as much to your home value…in a community like Garden City, which is distinctive for its architecture, which gets higher home values whether it’s in the east, central, estates or west because of that distinct architecture, otherwise we’re Plainview with those kind of home values,” he said.

McDonough noted two examples of where a conservancy has been successful — Central Park Conservancy and Randall’s Island. The theoretic conservancy would be comprised of public citizens, community groups and board members. “They would run the entire process,” he explained. He said becoming a non-profit organization would also enable charitable contributions to be made and allow access to state, federal and local grant dollars.

According to McDonough, the CSSP’s proposal would cost $10 million, resulting in the average homeowner paying $105.38 a year. Should the village choose demolition, McDonough said the total cost would be $5.8 million, with an additional $2.2 million for consultants and work. The village demolition finance period is estimated to be 10 years, costing the average taxpayer $117.82 a year, he explained.

Negri concluded, saying that he believes the committee has presented a viable plan to preserve St. Paul’s. “We protect the structure for current and future use, village control would be maintained, we provide some public use at 10,000 square feet. We do this at a cost that would not be any greater than demolition. We would provide for the adaptive reuse of a historic building. We preserve a priceless treasure. I can’t emphasize that enough. It is a priceless treasure, whether you have been in it or not...it makes the village special,” he stated. Once the building is secured, Negri wants the new space to be used for a variety of purposes, including meeting rooms for Scouts, senior clubs, as well as art lectures and adult education classes. The chapels could be used for exhibits and shows and theater groups, he explained.

 The mayor voiced his concerns about the ongoing costs that residents would have to endure if the plan goes forward. “It is very important that the trustees make the decision whether this is something we want to put on the shoulders of the village residents,” he said. “Demolition, in my eyes, pretty much ends the spending of the money that has been going on for 17 years...If we get into preserving this building, the deep pocket is never going to end,” the mayor said.

“I am a little disappointed in the plan,” Trustee Brian Daughney added. He said he still wasn’t sure what the building will be used for. McDonough responded, “I think the answer is simple. We don’t have all the answers right now,” he said. “Garden City is special because it is a community, children who come back and families who are here for generations. This building is a magnet for that sense of community just like the Garden City pools. If you want to put a value on that, go ahead. I don’t. I consider it priceless.”

The amount of what the demolition will actually cost is still up for debate. Negri said the longer the village waits to make a decision, the longer the building is subject to further damage. CSSP asked if the board would be willing to meet in public to discuss the plan in further detail. The mayor said he would consider it, but not all the village trustees were present.