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BankNote vies to take on big tenant

This historic BankNote building may soon be home to a massive city social service operation.

Public assistance programs to bring 2,000 clients a day

The city’s plans to rent nearly a third of the BankNote building to serve as a major hub for the borough’s public assistance programs has touched off a debate about the impact of bringing more than 2,200 residents in need to the neighborhood each day.

“It’s a time bomb waiting to happen,” said Robert Crespo at the board meeting, expressing his horror at the idea of social service seekers being housed under the same roof as two schools.

“If something happens to one of those kids, they’re going to claim they’re not responsible,” he said at the economic development committee meeting October 12.

While city officials, the landlord, and the commanding officer of the 41st Precinct offered assurances about safety, others at the community board meeting raised worry over the BankNote’s tenant role.

“Our tax dollars are subsidizing the building,” said board member Jason McNeil. “Why this building? There are a lot of landlords with vacant space, why aren’t they being subsidized?”

Despite the controversy, after a heated debate, the board voted 17-9 to support the move.

Plans call for the building to become the new location of a hub for clients of the food stamp program, family services, the HIV/AIDS Services Administration and other social services, as the city’s Human Resources Administration seeks to adjust its Bronx coverage.

All told, six social service offices and four administrative offices would operate out of the huge building on Lafayette Avenue, breathing new life into a flagging real estate investment.

Projected to open in 2013, the proposed facility would replace the Melrose Job Center located at 260 East 161st Street, bringing some 2,230 people to the peninsula every day.

The planned facility would streamline services in what the administration calls a Model Center, where clients entering from a single point receive tickets directing them to separate waiting areas.

The Human Resources Administration hopes this system will help shorten the long waits currently experienced at the Melrose location. The BankNote’s layout should help, said Nicole Halsey, director of community affairs for the administration, addressing the board.

In the current offices, clients have to wait for elevators and as a result, lines spill out onto the sidewalk. The BankNote can accommodate waiting clients inside, she says.

For Hunts Point and Longwood residents using these programs, the new proposal offers convenience, but some community members have raised worries over safety in and around the building, citing the large number of people to be served and the other facilities in the BankNote.

“I feel very strongly against this plan,” said Crespo at the full board meeting. He continues to show concern about the two schools, John V. Lindsay Wildcat Academy and the Bronx Educational Center, located at opposite ends of the BankNote’s Lafayette Avenue wing.

“I know this neighborhood needs these things,” said Barbara Alicea, community coordinator of the Hunts Point Alliance for Children, which has an office in the same wing. “But, we just have to feel safe,” she said.

In response to concerns raised by the community, the Human Resources Administration increased the number of guards in its proposal from 30 to 40, stationing them on each floor of the building occupied by the agency, with a roving patrol to secure the building’s perimeter.

In addition, they noted that plans call for the entrances to the various service centers to be near the intersection of Garrison Avenue and Tiffany Street and on Barretto Street, a few hundred feet away from the school entrances, on different sides of the building.

Captain Philip Rivera, commanding officer of the 41st Precinct, addressed the economic development committee of the community board in October, saying his department was prepared to police the influx of visitors to Hunts Point.

In addition to expressing concern about the impact of the new offices, some are questioning the trajectory of the BankNote building. Since 2008 when the building changed hands, it has leased space to one of the two schools, the office of Rep. Jose Serrano, a nonprofit most of whose clients are publicly-funded and a city-funded business incubator.

That’s a far cry from the plans Taconic Investment Partners and Denham Wolf Real Estate Services unveiled three years ago, which called for office lofts, arts and cultural activities and retail anchored by a food store.

“It was not our original intention,” acknowledged Peter Febo, senior vice president of Taconic. He blamed overall economic conditions for the change of plans, but added, “The city is not a bad tenant.”

The building is only 35 percent occupied right now, according to the proposal for the new offices, and the Human Resources Administration would double that, utilizing 147,000 of the BankNote’s 405,000 square feet.

The rent, according to Taconic, is still being negotiated.

Taconic representatives also expressed a hope that the additional people the city office would attract would spur retail investment in their building and in the surrounding area, particularly in the restaurant industry.

“They need the money, we need the services,” said Joyce Campbell-Culler, chair of the community board’s housing committee. But she remains upset with the lack of outreach done by Taconic and the city.

“This is the first I’m hearing of it,” said Alicea, at the October community board meeting.

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