Private school and an East Harlem apartment complex revitalize abandoned athletic facility

STEPHON JOHNSON Amsterdam News Staff | 6/20/2013, 1:04 p.m.
12/17/12 @ Leman

Let's say that somewhere on the island of Manhattan there is a 40,000-square-foot athletic center that features a regulation-sized high school gym, a 25-yard swimming pool, exercise rooms, locker rooms, saunas and a rooftop space. Let's also say that this particular center hasn't been in use for two decades in a city where maximizing real estate and square footage is a must.

That was the reality for one housing complex in East Harlem, but by this spring/summer, the facility will be back in use thanks to an internationally known private school.

The Dwight School announced this month that it will sign a 20-year lease with the 1199 Housing Corp., which owns the East River Landing housing cooperative, for a recreational facility located inside the housing complex on 108th Street and First Avenue. The athletic facility will be upgraded by Dwight and rechristened the Dwight School Athletic Center. The school will run the facility full-time and hire the personnel. But the deal also includes a partnership with the local community. The partnership will involve the facility being opened to residents and community members on the weekends and in the summer while the school will be the main tenant during the weekdays. The school will also add 200-seat bleachers to the gym, and the rooftop space will be converted into two tennis courts.

The private school also announced a scholarship program that will be offered to qualified residents in need at the East Harlem housing complex. The school also plans on providing a summer day camp for kids. But how did this 141-year-old school--with a number of programs and campuses in London, Beijing and Seoul--find this long-forgotten place in East Harlem? The better question is how 1199 Housing found the Dwight School.

William Dames, president of 1199 Housing, spoke with the AmNews about the birth of the partnership.

"We spent about $3 or 4 million renovating it in the last nine years," Dames said. "We had to tear out old plumbing and all of that. So we then started looking for an operator. We looked around at places like Bally's [fitness centers], and that didn't work out."

Closed since the late 1990s, the place had fallen out of use among residents, according to Dames. A place that used to host basketball tournaments in the late 1970s and early 1980s was essentially abandoned. Dames told the AmNews that the lack of use, coupled with costs and a recommendation from the city, led to its closing.

"There was no construction or ventilation for the swimming pool, so the city recommended that we close it down," Dames said. "Activity had pretty much ceased in the facility. We were spending maybe $100,000 a year just to keep it going. So we looked for a middleman to help us find a perfect suitor."

Dames and 1199 Housing contacted Cushman & Wakefield, the commercial real estate brokers and consultants based in Midtown. It was through them that the creation of the Dwight School partnership took place.

"We contacted them to find an operator, and they brought Dwight school over to us," Dames said. "We were pleased about the prospect. I mean, we couldn't invest the kind of money that would be required to operate the facility. We couldn't charge fees like that. We needed an outsider.