Lend a Hand

Lend a Hand

The Austin Jacobo Center, developed by the Mary Mitchell Center and Rogers Marvel Architects, provides social and community services in the Bronx.
Courtesy Rogers Marvel Architects

In early 2008, the Mary Mitchell Center, an organization that provides social services and community spaces to the Crotona neighborhood of the Bronx, collaborated with Rogers Marvel Architects to draft an initial design scheme for a new facility. To be known as the Austin Jacobo Center, the building would rise beside a hard-bitten baseball field on a derelict block at East 180th and Mapes streets.

The multifaceted project promised it all: the highest standards of sustainability; space for after-school programs; a library and computer center; and a green roof for growing vegetables. But the center’s backers had just started seeking city council support when the recession hit—and hope of receiving city funding for Austin Jacobo went up in smoke.

“The plan to raise money was significantly impacted by the economic crisis,” said Heidi Hynes, director of the Mary Mitchell Center, explaining that while the city was once willing to fund projects up front, it is now much more cautious about how it allocates resources. “Now the city says, we are happy to be part of the financial mix, but we won’t pay for the whole thing.”

The Jacobo Center rises beside a hardscrabble baseball field in the Crotona neighborhood.

The center’s saga has provided an object lesson in creative financial thinking, and the role designers can play in drumming up funding in today’s down economy. In Hynes’ case, her architects offered plenty of guidance for how to navigate an increasingly tangled web of local, state, and federal funding opportunities.

“Rogers Marvel has been amazing in helping us get support for the project,” Hynes said. On March 24, Jonathan Marvel was part of a group of architects, organized by the AIA, who lobbied in Albany for funds to be earmarked for civically sustainable projects. “The reception in Albany was positive,” said Marvel. “Everybody felt that this was something they could get behind.”

Speaking of the Austin Jacobo Center, he was similarly optimistic. “I think Heidi has a good shot,” he said. “We collaborated with her, and put together something that is well integrated in her current community as well as what the community will be in ten years.” His partner Rob Rogers agreed: “This kind of project should waltz through every kind of public support. The federal government should be thinking about what you get for your dollar over the next 20 years, not just printing money for today.”

The center includes a green roof and labs for local students to explore and experiment with.

So far, however, Hynes has yet to secure such public largesse. Like many other community groups shut out of city funding, the Mary Mitchell Center has had little luck convincing other sources that the project will become a reality. So Hynes has turned her attention to Albany and Washington, applying to federal agencies for stimulus funding. But while the project’s program seems to make it a perfect candidate for federal funds, it is more than 120 days from being shovel ready—a key stipulation in the stimulus bill.

But Hynes isn’t backing down. “The point is, that you can’t create amazing facilities that answer the needs of communities and expect them to be already thought out right this minute,” she said. “There has to be some effort to put pressure on the federal government to expand their thinking.”