Call it a slow-cooked Italian dish.
The city’s first Italian-American community center, “Il Centro,” finally opened its Bensonhurst doors on June 21 — nearly a decade after the project was first announced.
Construction of the center, at the corner of 18th and Benson avenues, was delayed for years because of hundreds of complaints neighbors filed with the city about the construction and debates with the builder, according to the chairman of the board for the Federation of Italian-American Organizations, which owns the property.
“The delay basically was a result of the bureaucracy and the innate factors in construction,” said Jack Spatola. “Every time [there was a complaint], an inspector would come and stop work. Some of the other delays were going back and forth with the builder and the owner related to the value engineering.”
City records show that there are nearly 300 complaints about the property on file with the Department of Buildings — about workers smoking cigarettes, construction after hours, and allegations of illegal plumbing and electrical work, among other issues — dating back to 2011, plus 11 violations, all of which were dismissed. Plus, neighbors called in 11 complaints to 311 since 2011 — about noise, electrical, and general construction concerns.
Stakeholders began discussing plans for the center around 2004, Spatola said, and the Federation of Italian-American Organizations first announced plans for it in 2009, saying at the time it was scheduled to open in 2011. But the builder didn’t even break ground on the property until 2012, Spatola said, insisting that it was never intended to open in 2011.
In 2014, the federation hosted a get-together at the still-under-construction site, and then told this paper in May 2016 that the center would be finished and opening imminently — and that costs had jumped from the initial estimate of $15 million to more than $20 million.
Spatola said officials had hoped the center would open by November 2017, but the completion was delayed by wrangling with the builder over interior features including the elevator, soundproof glass, and the kitchen. Spatola said the group didn’t try to find a less contentious builder because they were worried that would delay the project even further, to the detriment of the community.
“If we did, it would delay the construction and completion and availability to the community to bring the center further along,” he said.
Spatola added that the cost for the construction was actually close to the initial estimate of $15 million, but that the additional costs that brought the final price tag to $20 million included expenses such as architect’s fees and the purchase of the land — though the construction delays did add about $500,000 to the overall cost.
The federation raised most of the money to build the center from private donors, but did receive some public funding. State Sen. Marty Golden (R–Bay Ridge) kicked in $2 million, and former Rep. Michael McMahon (D–Bay Ridge) allocated $700,000.
The center’s first floor is open to the public and includes classrooms, a cultural library, a conference room where the center will host free panels and events, and a pantry that Spatola says will soon become a kitchen. The upper floors — available to dues-paying members — include a gym, a full-sized basketball court, a pool, and soon-to-come rooftop garden, Spatola said. Annual individual membership starts at $78, with discounts for teens, families, seniors, and couples.
Spatola, who came to the neighborhood from Sicily in the 1960s with his parents and sister, said the center will offer an opportunity to highlight the positive examples of local Italian-Americans who are contributing to the community, thereby countering negative stereotypes in popular culture.
“There’s always a negative connotation with Italian-Americans in the mass media, and I think one of the things that’s lost is what to glorify,” he said.
Plus, he added, the center will function as a gathering spot and place of cultural exchange among the neighborhood’s diverse residents.
“It’s open to everybody — we have Arabic youth, Russian youth, Chinese youth who are using the facility,” he said. “[The neighborhood] has always been an incredible mosaic. Everyone retains their identity, but they make it incredibly beautiful.”
©2018 Community News Group