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After 14 years, NYCHA community center in Gowanus receives funds to reopen

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Rep tape stymied pervious attempts to renovate and reopen the center

The long-shuttered Gowanus Houses community center.
Caroline Spivack/Curbed NY

The City Council has kicked in nearly one million dollars to reopen the long-shuttered community center at the Gowanus Houses NYCHA complex—but residents are weary of the lack of timeline to permanently open the center’s doors after prior pledges hit bureaucratic snags.

“We have heard about announcements of funding in the past—at least three times in the past. What we are looking for now are start dates,” said SJ Avery with the Gowanus Neighborhood Coalition. “We need to know when, where, and how. That’s the next step.”

For years, red tape has stymied the reopening of the public housing complex’s community center. The city shuttered the space 14 years ago, but residents advocated for the neighborhood resource to reopen, and in 2014, councilmember Stephen Levin allocated $475,000 in participatory budgeting towards renovating the center.

Still, the space remained closed and the funds unused because capital dollars can only be spent on physical infrastructure. At the time, the city said a sponsor organization that would help fund the center’s programs once it reopened needed to be secured before construction could move forward, a task only the Department of Youth and Community Development can do for NYCHA complexes. The agency said it was searching for a provider, but years went by and the center remained closed and costs climbed to renovate the site.

Then in 2017, Mayor Bill de Blasio roused hopes when he announced at a town hall that the city was committed to allocating funds for programming. Now, the center is set to undergo a $4.5 million renovation thanks to $947,000 in funding secured by the City Council and another $3.5 million committed by NYCHA.

A community center at the nearby Wyckoff Gardens Houses in Boerum Hill is also getting an overhaul, with $2.5 million kicked in by the Council in this year’s budget paired with $2.4 million that was previously allocated. The funding for both projects have been a long time coming, said Levin.

“We’re here today to make good on a promise that the city made to residents at Gowanus and Wyckoff years ago,” Levin said at a Thursday news conference in front of the community center.

At the moment, affordable housing group the Fifth Avenue Committee is footing the bill for insurance and other costs to temporarily keep the Gowanus Houses center open. The City Council has also dedicated $50,000 in the budget to provide programming before renovations are underway.

NYCHA is handling the renovations at the Wyckoff Gardens facility, which the agency says it expects to begin designing in September, but the city’s Department of Design and Construction (DDC) will handle construction at the Gowanus space. DDC did not immediately return requests for comment on the project’s timeline.

At Thursday’s news conference, City Council Speaker Corey Johnson recalled growing up in public housing in Massachusetts and stressed the importance of maintaining NYCHA centers as hubs of neighborhood activity, and as spaces of shelter during emergencies.

“Community centers are one of the backbones of our communities and our neighborhoods,” Johnson said. “We need them for after school programs, for seniors to gather, for socializing, and for so much more.”

Back in its heyday, the Gowanus center once featured a wall lined with mirrors where young girls would take dance lessons and put on shows for tenants; a neighboring, now-shuttered room was decked out with pool tables where men would often gather; and the kitchen was always flush with snacks, recalled Marguerite Scott, who served as the president of the Gowanus Houses Resident Association in the 1970s.

“There used to be real life in this place,” said Scott, who has lived in the Gowanus Houses for more than 40 years. “It’s going to take a lot—it’s going to take a hell of a lot—to bring this place back to what it used to be, but if the heart is there it can be done.”