Written by Melissa Argueta Friday, 27 August 2010 00:00
On Aug. 19, a large crowd of Long Islanders packed Village Hall to attend a public hearing on the St. Paul’s Draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS). The overwhelming majority of local residents voiced their opposition regarding the proposed demolition of the historic former boy’s school, which one resident described as “the soul of Garden City.”
In 2009, the village board, as the lead agency and owner of St. Paul’s School, issued a positive declaration requiring the preparation of a DEIS for the proposed demolition of St. Paul’s Main Building and Ellis Hall. To ensure a comprehensive environmental review in accordance with the State Environmental Quality Review Act (SEQRA), the potential environmental impacts associated with the demolition were evaluated in the DEIS, which was prepared and ultimately accepted by the board of trustees on June 17, 2010.
While the majority of attendees at the hearing were against demolition, there were two residents who said they were in favor of the proposal. One resident said demolition would eliminate the “rudimentary and unforeseen maintenance” of the building, which she believed would otherwise stretch far into the future. The citizen also acknowledged that while the structure is an iconic building in the village, “the history, character and intelligence of Garden City is not defined by any one structure. It is gratifying to observe so many concerned citizens who are here to speak their mind. I believe, however, that there is a very large number of residents who are thoroughly sick of the ongoing situation and would like the saga of St. Paul’s to end,” she said.
A resident who has lived in Garden City since 1968 also told the board that he was in favor of demolition. “I think the studies and these arguments have been going on far too long...although everyone likes to look at the building, I think unfortunately it’s time to say goodbye to it,” he said.
After several residents got up to speak, it was clear that most of them wanted to save the building. A 25-year resident told the board, “the rich architectural heritage of the late 19th century is what distinguishes our Garden City from any other town on Long Island and, perhaps, America, and St. Paul’s is the most dramatic and prominent example of that distinction.” She added, “It is correct to say that St. Paul’s is the soul of Garden City since its chapel housed the very first church in town.” The resident also asked the board to consider what will happen to the environment if St. Paul’s is not saved. “I want you to know how much debris, 130,000 square feet is going to result in filling in the landfills, we’re estimating that’s about 250,000 tons of debris will enter the landfill…and that is a crime,” she added.
This past June, the Committee to Save St. Paul’s (CSSP) and Garden City Historical Society presented 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 the Committee says would cost the same or even less than the demolition. Garden City resident Frank McDonough, who spoke about the financial aspects of the alternative plan at a recent CSSP meeting, asked the board to consider the economic impact that a demolition would have on homeowners. “I would suggest that the continued demolition of our historic treasures, of the Garden City Hotel, St. Mary’s and other similar structures, ultimately results in a decrease in the value of our homes and, therefore, our overall capital balance sheet for the village. I would suggest that before we consider the demolition of St. Paul’s, we consider the economic impact on home values by having it torn down,” McDonough said.
CSSP President Peter Negri added that donations have continued to pour in since he first presented his plan to save the building. “We were up to $250,000 in pledges. We’re now at $300,000, well on our way to a million dollars,” he told the audience at the hearing. A Westbury resident and former St. Paul’s alumni also offered his assistance to help raise money for its preservation. “If this building is saved, I pledge to immediately create the St. Paul’s Conservancy and Alumni Foundation...We will contribute to the maintenance of the building, future restoration and are willing to give back to the village in the form of educational grants for Garden City students and residents. Preserving this building will create new life for Garden City. Destroying it will bury history, memories of the past, and most sadly, memories of the future. Once restored, this building will no longer be a burden for your village,” the resident added.
Members of the board did not speak during the hearing, but Mayor Robert J. Rothschild did thank participants for their comments, emails and letters that arrived from across the country. “The majority of those people stated that we should never take down St. Paul’s because they love it,” the mayor said, adding, “We may get to a point where the residents in this village are going to make that decision to spend the dollars but we need to do what we are doing now. We need to get to a point where it’s demolition or it’s preservation, it will be what it will be, but I think we’re going in the right direction,” he added.
Mayor Rothschild also pointed out that many people who wrote letters were in favor of keeping St. Paul’s a high school. “In 1997, the school board said they weren’t going to make it a high school. That’s a discussion that should have ended a long time ago; it’s not going to happen. There are reasons for it not happening…because they are not connected to what’s going on for the last 17 years, they still hold that hope it would still be a school or a village hall. I don’t think we will be moving Village Hall anytime soon to St. Paul’s with all the money we spent on this building to try to get it up to code,” the mayor said.
The next and final hearing on the DEIS will be held on Sept. 30 at Village Hall. Copies of the document can be obtained at Village Hall for a cost of $3 on CD, as well as at the Garden City Public Library and on the village’s website at www.gardencityny.net/gcvillage.htm.