Right in step with students heading back to school this past August, several dozen New Yorkers walked through the doors that once housed the P.S. 90 elementary school. But instead of carrying school books and lunch boxes, this group hauled everything from toaster ovens to big screen TVs as they moved into their new condos.
At the turn of the century, public schools such as P.S. 90 offered architects a chance to build inspiring, iconic structures. When New York City chief architect and superintendent Charles B.J. Snyder designed P.S. 90 in Harlem in 1905, he added fanciful Collegiate Gothic gargoyles, parapets, and spires to embellish the five-story, red-brick façade. The elaborate design reflected the area’s growth and increasing prominence as immigrants and later middle-class African-Americans migrated to the Upper West Side.
By the 1920s, the Harlem Renaissance was in full bloom. Yet, by the mid-1960s, a faltering economy took its tool. Budget cuts and low enrollment forced the school, located at 220 West 148th Street, to close. The last class graduated in 1970. Once shuttered, the building decayed. The city’s near bankruptcy in 1975 left insufficient funds for repair.
Sadly, the building sat vacant for more than 25 years, even as neighboring properties on the block were transformed, many by Ron Moelis, CEO of L + M Development Partners, a real estate company based in Larchmont, N.Y. But Moelis kept his eye on the former school. Although he knew the building was in terrible shape, Moelis saw its potential to be transformed into residential housing because of its 12-inch high ceilings, 10-inch high windows, handsome brick exterior, and Gothic remnants. “I decided if I could purchase the building for a nominal fee, I’d remodel it for condominiums,” he says.
When the Department of Education finally decided in the early part of the decade that it no longer needed the building, the New York City Department of Housing Preservation and Development looked for a developer. Moelis came forward, and a nominal cash purchase price was agreed on in 2007. Moelis, along with his affiliate, New York-based West 147th Associates, and New York-based Curtis + Ginsberg Architects, began transforming P.S. 90 into PS90 Condominiums. A complex financing package included loans from Wachovia Bank and equity funds from Goldman Sachs.
“Our goal was to make the transitional neighborhood better by giving home buyers something extra,” Moelis says.
Project architect Mark Ginsberg, who considered the 128,000-square-foot building a “wonderful wreck,” saved or duplicated materials and detailing, including removing parapets, numbering them, and putting them all back. A sixth floor was added and a gut rehab of the building took place to gain room for a total of 75 loft-style units, from 760-square-foot studios to 1,579-square-foot three bedrooms; 16 feature terraces, some with views of Yankee Stadium.
Amenities at the property include a media room, community center, and landscaped courtyards, the latter designed by New York-based Starr Whitehouse Landscape Architects and Planners. “We went for color, seasonal interest, and varied textures and forms,” says partner Laura Starr. Because the building’s north entry side had little natural light, her firm planted a lush, shaded woodland garden with native, low-maintenance materials and redesigned the entrance with a ramp to meet Americans with Disabilities Act regulations. On the south-facing, rear side, a slightly elevated courtyard was landscaped with low-maintenance, low-weight plantings plus seating. Altogether, $40 million was pumped into bricks-and-mortar, landscaping, and development costs. School Spirit
Since sales began in September 2009, 31 of the 75 units have sold, and owners began moving in this past August, says Anne Carson Blair, L + M’s project manager. Twenty are affordable condos with price tags of $205,000 to $365,000; 55 are market-rate units, priced between $450,000 and $879,000. Despite the slower market, Moelis remains upbeat. “Units have been selling fairly consistently, and we believe once more are occupied that will help sell more,” he says. “We’re helping with some closing costs where needed.”
City officials are delighted with the project’s early success, and the transformation has garnered both local and national interest. “This is a very exciting project on a block where we had enormous prior investment,” explains Wendell B. Walters, assistant commissioner for the division of new construction at the New York Department of Housing Preservation and Development. “Of the 20 or so buildings, 17 [including the school] were owned by the city and taken through tax foreclosure after sitting derelict and vacant for years. Timing was on our side with the homeownership boom and ability to attract financing,” he says.
Many purchasers, Blair adds, are eager to know the purpose of their former condo—for instance, if the unit was part of the gym or a girls’ or boys’ bathroom. Residents can’t help but imagine students bouncing through the front door, school books and lunches in tow.
Barbara Ballinger is a freelance writer specializing in project and design coverage.