Call it a slow-cooked Italian dish.
The city’s first Italian-American community center, “Il Centro,” opened its doors in Bensonhurst last week — nearly a decade after the project was first announced.
Work on the center at the corner of 18th and Benson avenues was delayed for years, due to hundreds of complaints neighbors filed with the city about its construction and debates with the builder, according to the board chairman of 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 caused by 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 contractors smoking cigarettes, working after hours, and allegations of illegal plumbing and electrical work, among other issues — dating back to 2011, as well as 11 violations, all of which were dismissed. Plus, neighbors called in 11 complaints to 311 about noise, electrical, and general construction concerns since 2011.
Stakeholders began discussing ideas 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 reps then said in May 2016 that it 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 hoped the center would open by November 2017, but its completion was delayed by tussles with the builder over interior features including the elevator, soundproof glass, and the kitchen. The federation didn’t try to find a less contentious developer because its leaders were worried that would delay the project even further, to the detriment of the community, he said.
“If we did, it would delay construction to bring the center further along,” the federation’s board chairman said.
Spatola added that the job’s final price tag would have actually come close to the initial estimate of $15 million were it not for such additional costs as architect’s fees and the purchase of the land, which inflated it to $20 million. Construction delays, however, did add about $500,000 to the overall cost, he said.
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 for free panels and events, and a pantry that Spatola said will soon become a kitchen. Its upper floors — available to dues-paying members — include a gym, a full-sized basketball court, a pool, and soon-to-come rooftop garden, he said. An 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 celebrate local Italian-Americans who are contributing to the community, thereby countering certain 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, the center will function as a gathering place for cultural exchanges among the neighborhood’s diverse residents, Spatola said.
“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.”