Failed School Rejected For Senior Center

Navigating building may be tough for elderly
Eric Schantz, a senior East Hampton town planner, said Tuesday the former Child Development Center of the Hamptons school building is not ideal for relocation of the current East Hampton Town Senior Citizens Center. Christine Sampson

The East Hampton Town Board found itself this week discussing what is arguably the most popular topic of conversation hereabouts — real estate. With the long-held opinion that a new senior citizens center is needed, the board had released a report in September saying the defunct Child Development Center of the Hamptons on Stephen Hand’s Path was in excellent shape and would cost significantly less to convert to a center than a new building at the current Springs-Fireplace Road site.

Now, the town board appears ready to abandon the idea of using the C.D.C.H. as a senior citizens center, with board members divided on whether to acquire the building for other purposes.

The C.D.C.H. was a public charter school on town-owned land, with the building apparently owned by Family Residences and Essential Enterprises, the nonprofit organization that managed the school for several years before it closed in June amid declining enrollment and financial problems.

During Tuesday’s town board work session, Eric Schantz, a senior town planner, said a closer analysis showed the  building was not as ideal as it first appeared. “Originally, we were really excited about this building. . . . We figured we had a lot of leeway with it,” Mr. Schantz said. He went on to say the 22,000-square-foot building “was designed as a school, not a senior center, and we started to see some of the problems in that.”

Chief among them, he said, was finding spaces thought to be necessary for a senior center — a kitchen, dining room,  wellness center, game and media rooms, and staff offices. Mr. Schantz said they would not all fit in the building in a desirable way. He also said that the town’s adult day care program, which is housed in the senior center, would require a new sanitary system, a new drop-off and pickup area, and more parking and ramps.

Councilwoman Kathee Burke-Gonzalez, who is on the town’s senior center planning committee, said the committee was recommending construction of a new building. When a group of senior citizens who frequent the senior center toured the former school building, she said, they had a hard time navigating it. The size of the building and its layout was not good, she said. “It was exhausting, and they had to stop and sit down. It is not designed for a senior citizens center.”

That left the board with a dilemma about what to do with the former school if the town bought it. Supervisor Larry Cantwell said it could be acquired for a price that he did not disclose other than to say “it’s far less than the value of the building,” but the town attorney, Michael Sendlenski, halted further debate, saying real estate purchases should be discussed during an executive session.

“The town has some flexibility for how to use this 40-acre parcel,” Mr. Cantwell said. “The bones of the building, we all agree, are in really excellent condition. If the board decided the Springs-Fireplace Road facility is the site for the senior center, what can we use this for? Are we still interested?”

Mr. Cantwell said he could see “some important community needs being met by this space.”

“As a community, do we have the wherewithal and the organizational skills to turn this into something the community would enjoy and provide a service? . . . I think the question for us is do we step in front of this, secure it without a specific plan in place for its use or how to pay for its operation. I don’t have a problem paying for the building and working with others in the community to try to develop something, or do we not take the chance?”

Ms. Burke-Gonzalez said she would prefer the town not take the chance blindly. “I’d want to be a little more cautious. We’re looking at building a new senior center, which is going to be $5 million to $6 million . . . and we’re looking to do a new town hall here. We’re taking on a lot of debt,” she said. “The town tried at one point to run the rec center and that didn’t work, and we brought in the Y.M.C.A. I’m not comfortable purchasing the building without that structure in place, and I would have to understand the numbers because we’ve got two big projects in place.”

 Councilman Peter Van Scoyoc, however, argued that there was “quite a bit of value” in acquiring the building. “Our needs in this town only continue to expand. . . . I think it’s an option the town board should seriously consider. It’s going to be worth the expenditure now.” 

Saying she was in favor of a purchase, Councilwoman Sylvia Overby repeated a familiar adage: “If you build it, they will come.” She said the space has potential to be used in a way similar to the Southampton Cultural Center. “I think we need to take this opportunity. . . . I think it will be a missed one if we let it go,” she said.

Councilman Fred Overton said he had not decided one way or the other yet, and it appeared likely that a decision about what to do would not be forthcoming soon.