One Year After the Fire, Anxiously Awaiting Future of 70 Mulberry Street

Posted on: January 29th, 2021 at 5:01 am by

May 2020, Photo: Karlin Chan

A year ago last Saturday marked the one-year anniversary of the devastating fire at 70 Mulberry Street, the former school that housed five Chinatown nonprofit organizations. Nonetheless: questions, anxiety, and doubt regarding its future still linger.

On January 23, 2020, as Chinatown prepared to ring in the Year of The Rat and families sitting down for traditional “End of Year” dinners, a “catastrophic electrical failure” as labeled by the New York City Department of Citywide Administrative Services (DCAS), sparked a devastating fire at the old Public School 23. The blaze ultimately raised five alarms and burned for 24 hours, even as firefighters battled.

The charred remains truly shook the community, heartbreaking to those who attended school there or participated in programming offered by the nonprofits housed therein. More so to the hundreds of seniors who had known it as a second home.

Photo: Karlin Chan

Several days after the fire, Mayor de Blasio came down and vowed to restore the structure for a return to community use. However, the opposite transpired in the ensuing months: the community was left in the dark on the city’s plan to rebuild until  DCAS reported to Community Board 3 that the building was a total loss requiring demolition, without offering much supporting evidence.

At the time, I asked the city’s structural engineer in simple terms if 70 Mulberry could be restored, and he replied “YES,” which contradicted the determination by DCAS as a total loss.

Demolition crews appeared a few months later, despite objections from the community, and demands for an independent engineer to assess the building. Opposition snowballed through the spring of 2020, and culminated in a “Save PS23” rally that I co-organized.

The pressure apparently paid off, as the mayor later announced that $80 million is in the city budget for rehabilitating the structure.

Meanwhile, this past year has been marked by a lack of transparency by DCAS. Although the agency promised to keep the former site tenants “in the loop” on every phase of restoration, we later learned there were only two meetings held, yet in an informational format without answers to the many questions posed.

Let’s not also forget the intense lobbying by pro-development advocates who allegedly used below-belt tactics against those opposing the proposed 20-story tower for the site. A development that would include senior housing and trigger a lengthy land review process, which would undoubtedly delay the rebuilding by years. Though Councilwoman Margaret Chin has publicly stated she would let the community weigh in and decide the site’s future, it appears her allies are pushing the development narrative.

At the end of the day, the community’s voice was heard. DCAS has since stated they will allow an independent structural engineer with restoration experience to do an analysis.

The community, meantime, anxiously awaits the DCAS update scheduled for Community Board 3 next month and/or any independent report that may arise.

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