Rangel Center Expansion Plan Skips Community Board

November 27, 2013

rangel centerA plan to add three-stories to the home of the Charles B. Rangel Center for Public Service at City College has residents crying foul because the public was never made aware of the addition.

The plan, which the Historic Districts Council says is out of character with the Hamilton Heights Historic District, was never presented to Community Board 9 before it won approval Tuesday from the Landmarks Preservation Commission.

The center has already attracted scrutiny for the 22-term congressman.

In 2010, Rangel was censured by Congress for using congressional letterhead to solicit corporate donations for the center from groups that had business before the powerful House Ways and Means Committee of which Rangel was once chair, among other infractions.

A July 2008 report in the Washington Post shows that at the time, the center had raised $12.2 million towards the estimated $30 million needed to renovate the townhouse, with $1.9 million coming from a congressional earmark, $690,500 from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and $100,000 from the City Council.

City College did not immediately respond to requests about current fundraising levels.

Rangel filed a lawsuit earlier this year to overturn the embarrassing censure.

Preservation groups believe the townhouse application was pushed through without any community review because of the center’s namesake.

“This is fishy. They’ve gone against standard procedure and that’s the first sign this is not business as usual,” said Yuien Chin of the Hamilton Heights-West Harlem Community Preservation Organization. “If a private owner had wanted to do that there is no way they would have approved it.”

Rangel’s office did not respond to requests for comment.

Deidra W. Hill, City College’s vice president for communications and marketing, would only say that a proposal for the building, known as the City College of New York Alumni House, was approved by the landmarks commission and that “the college works to follow all the rules that it needs to follow.”

The commission instructs applicants that they should present their projects before the local community board even though the boards’ rulings are only advisory. If the project had been presented to Community Board 9, the landmarks committee and the full board could have both voted on whether it approved of the addition.

Elisabeth de Bourbon, a spokeswoman for the LPC, said it was acknowledged that Community Board 9 was not given a presentation on the plan. City College officials told the commission that they contacted Community Board 9 and were told the plan did not need to come before the board, de Bourbon said.

Asked why the commission did not refer the project back to the community board for review, de Bourbon cited time restrictions.

“Because we have a tight schedule we decided to go ahead with it,” she said. “If the applicant was told there was no reason for them to go to the community board that’s an issue at the community board’s end.”

The Rev. Georgiette Morgan-Thomas, chairwoman of Community Board 9, said she was under the impression that the project would be referred back to the community board after speaking to the landmarks commission Tuesday afternoon.

Morgan-Thomas is also investigating whether someone at the board told City College the proposal did not need to be reviewed. Even if that did occur, the school should have presented the proposal as a basic courtesy, she said.

“They have been in our community long enough to know they should have presented this to the community board,” Morgan-Thomas said.

The townhouse at 280 Convent Ave. is a Beaux-Arts style rowhouse that was built from 1899 through 1902. It was designed by Henri Fouchaux, a well-known area townhouse designer in the early 20th century, and has sat vacant for years, enduring fires and water damage.

“We want to see that building utilized. We don’t want any building sitting dormant and decaying, especially in a landmark district,” Morgan-Thomas said.

But the current proposal from City College, which involves adding the rear addition and replacing the windows, is simply out of character with the neighborhood, say area residents and historic preservation advocates.

“We really felt it was over-designed. It was overpowering a simple building. The new design form and materials contrast too much with the existing district,” Simeon Bankoff, executive director for the Historic Districts Council, said in explaining why his group recommended the landmarks commission reject the proposal.

Michael Henry Adams, an architectural historian and author of “Harlem Lost and Found,” also wondered if the name of the center played a role in the approval.

“I just cannot believe this would have been approved otherwise,” he said. “The addition is too big and detracts from the landmark.”

The center supports students enrolled in City College’s Public Service Management Program, a master’s program that focuses on students who are underrepresented in public service. The center, currently housed in a room in the North Academic Center, will also host an archive of Rangel’s papers.

In spite of the goals of the center, Chin said the approval sets a dangerous precedent for developers who may be looking to build bigger structures in the Hamilton Heights Historic District. Designated in 1974, the district is one of the city’s earliest.

“The message they are sending to the community is that the same rules don’t apply to everyone,” Chin said.


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