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Committee To Save St. Paul’s Falls Short

The latest chapter in the ongoing saga that is the fight over the fate of the former St. Paul’s school took a southward turn for preservationists. By a tally of five to three, the Garden City Board of Trustees voted to accept the findings of a forensic architect hired by the village to review an $8.2 million proposal submitted by the Committee to Save St. Paul’s (CSSP) with help from the Garden City Historical Society. Don Erwin, principal in the architecture/engineering firm of Erwin & Bielinski, conducted the study and drew up the report that found the committee’s proposal and estimate falling short on a number of levels.

“I don’t believe it would be feasible to occupy the building for that [estimate],” Erwin said. “That price [of $8.2 million] is underestimated and there needs to be additional work along with the simple issue of overcoming the building’s safety issues, which are out of everybody’s control. [That’s] really up to the building inspectors and other parties.”

The CSSP proposed restoring the first floor and chapel, and closing off the remainder of the building as a means of deferring a full-on restoration of the entire structure.

According to Erwin, among the problems presented by the current structure are:

An antiquated design that doesn’t meet current building codes

An anachronistic footprint characterized by small rooms and odd-shaped corridors that are an irregular fit for contemporary usage

Major safety flaws

Most problematic are aspects of the structure’s inherent design, he said, and it would cost on the order of $40 million to make St. Paul’s suitable for occupancy.

“The outside walls are actually hollow and would create smoke tunnels if a fire were to develop, it would envelop the entire building,” Erwin said. “The entire roof is made of wood and we know that’s a difficult mix—wood floors and a wood roof in a masonry building with no means of egress. It’s unfortunately a poisonous mix that’s sitting there and to truly address that would be very, very expensive.”

In Erwin’s opinion, money used in a partial restoration would be wasted as work done on the primary level would be ripped out once St. Paul’s was wholly redone.

Mayor Don Brudie inquired as to whether $8.2 million was a fair amount for the work proposed. Erwin said he didn’t think it was feasible.

Code compliance, or St. Paul’s lack of it according to the report, was a major sticking point.

A letter written by Michael Filippon, the superintendent of the village’s building department read in part, “…I found the reports to be extremely thorough and display a full understanding of the underlying principles of building codes, which are designed to ensure the safety of people entering the building. I would go so far as to say that with the passage of time, cost estimates will likely be even higher. In conclusion, I concur with the findings of the report that partial use of the building without significant remediation to the entire building, is not only impractical, but would not achieve code compliance.”

The Erwin & Bielinksi report also offered options for what to do with St. Paul’s (see sidebar) that ranged from $17.2 million to well over $100 million.

With the presentation of the report, Trustee Brian Daughney proposed accepting the report’s results and rejecting the CSSP plan with Trustees Daughney, Dennis Donnelly, Laurence Quinn, Nicholas Episcopia and John DeMaro voting affirmatively and Mayor Brudie and deputy Mayors John Watras and Andrew Cavanaugh casting negative votes.  In casting his vote, the mayor made clear his concerns regarding the potential demolition of St. Paul’s.

“This is an iconic building. It’s an asset to the village. It’s something that if you take it down, you cannot put it back up,” he said. “Once it’s gone, you couldn’t even rebuild it for the four to six million dollars it would cost to take it down. You couldn’t put the building back for that cost. So this has to be something that’s considered very carefully and very seriously before we make any move on this.”

The next meeting of the Garden City Board of Trustees will be on Thursday, Jan. 10 at 8 p.m.