West and East Village, Chelsea, Soho, Noho, Little Italy, Chinatown and Lower East Side, Since 1933
Volume 77, Number 20 | October 17 - 23, 2007

Photo by William Alatriste, courtesy New York City Council

Democratic District Leaders Alice Cancel and John Quinn helped rally a crowd of 100 in calling for renovation of the old LaGuardia Bathhouse.

Don’t let bathhouse go down the drain, neighbors cry

By Matt Townsend 

Ida Ortiz-Colon swam in the LaGuardia Bathhouse five decades ago. 

“It was awesome,” said Ortiz-Colon, who has lived on the Lower East Side for 52 years. “They had lifeguards and basketball courts. It was great.” 

Now Ortiz-Colon wants kids in her neighborhood to have the same opportunity she did. The city closed the three-story building during the 1970s financial crisis and never reopened it. The 18,000-square-foot structure that sits next to the LaGuardia public housing complex just off Madison St. on the Lower East Side has a weathered exterior, a hole in the roof and a few small trees growing out its front side. 

“It’s definitely needed in this community,” Ortiz-Colon said. “It would give kids things to do in the winter, so they’re not just hanging out in the lobbies [of the housing project].” 

Ortiz-Colon joined about 100 people on the afternoon of Oct. 8, during the Columbus Day holiday, for a rally in front of the bathhouse to put pressure on the city and the Parks and Recreation Department — which owns the building — to help the community renovate it. City Councilmemeber Alan Gerson, who led a similar event earlier this year, believes the opportunity to secure funding has improved because the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation might provide federal money to coincide with city funds.

The L.M.D.C., which has the stated goal of helping Lower Manhattan recover from the 9/11 attack, started a Community Enhancement Fund in 2006 to provide capital and programming funds for nonprofit organizations that serve Lower Manhattan. The fund can spend up to $45 million in the district, which includes the area below Houston St. The money can be used for government-owned buildings, such as the bathhouse, and multiyear projects. Two community-based organizations, The New York Foundation for Senior Citizens and Urban Dove, submitted proposals to renovate the LaGuardia Bathhouse. Gerson said a renovation that includes a pool could cost $28 million.  

“They need to hear from the city that it has a real interest and that the city will put up its share,” said Gerson, who has tried to gain support for a renovation for several years. “Together we can figure it out.”

Adrian Benepe, Parks Department commissioner, said the Bloomberg administration is the third consecutive administration to not renovate the bathhouse. He offered that a more realistic renovation estimate is $40 million and doubted if the building, which is more than 100 years old, still can be used. According to the Parks Department, the Lower East Side has more parks and recreation facilities, both public and private, than many parts of the city. 

“We’re open to the possibility, but it’s a great deal of money,” Benepe said. “Our best guess is that the existing building couldn’t be used. There’s no elevator. It would be extremely difficult to renovate.” 

Despite previous calls for the renovation project, the city approved the 2008 fiscal budget in June without any money allocated for the bathhouse. In the budget, the city allocated $15.3 billion to fund capital projects. The Parks Department received $817 million in capital funds.  

The city allocated a good chunk of that — $163.2 million — to fund development associated with the building of the Yankees’ new stadium in the Bronx and the Mets’ new stadium in Queens. The city also adopted a budget with a $4.4 billion surplus. 

“They can allocate the funds if they want to,” said Geoffrey Croft, president of NYC Park Advocates. “Someone needs to create the political will.” 

In April, the city opened the publicly funded Greenbelt Recreation Center on Staten Island. The $9 million center has two full basketball courts, tennis courts, a soccer field, a performance space and locker rooms. The center marked just the second on Staten Island. Manhattan has 13. 

“The city has built new rec centers from scratch,” said Gerson. “If the city can build rec centers from scratch, then they should be able to do something with a building they already own.” 

Gerson said he showed representatives from the L.M.D.C. the bathhouse and will meet with them on Oct. 23.  

“I’m going to keep at this every day,” Gerson said. “We’ve had public hearings. We’ll have more pubic hearings.” 

Gerson offered as one of his key selling points that a renovated bathhouse will help several members of the community. He said the city’s La Guardia Senior Center has overcrowding problems and could use the bathhouse to serve meals and run programs.  

Residents complained during the rally that small children needed a safe place to go, teens should have a free place to play basketball during the winter and there should be a closer pool. The nearest city-run indoor basketball court to the LaGuardia Houses is a half-mile away at the Alfred E. Smith recreation center on Catherine St. The closest city pool is two-thirds of a mile away at Hamilton Fish Park at Pitt and E. Houston Sts. 

“I believe it’s going to happen,” Ortiz-Colon said. “But if it doesn’t, we’ll keep fighting.” 

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