By Donald Wittkowski
Three dilapidated modular units that once served as an annex at the former Sea Isle City Public School will be demolished this week in a first step toward possibly transforming the site into a community recreation center.
Neil Byrne, the city’s construction official, said the contractor expects to tear down the trailer-like units on Monday or Tuesday. An excavator that will be used for the demolition work is already parked at the school site on Park Road between 45th and 46th streets.
The modular units were added to the back of the school in the 1980s when more space was needed to accommodate what was then Sea Isle’s growing student population.
Now, those same trailers are a symbol of the city’s dying school system. When the school closed down in 2012 due, ironically, to declining student enrollment, the trailers became a weather-beaten eyesore.
The school, built in 1971, occupies an entire block bordered by Park Road, Central Avenue, 45th Street and 46th Street. Although the building itself is generally sound, it sits below the elevation considered safe for flood protection under current standards, city officials say.
For the past few years, city officials have been discussing the possibility of converting the old school into a community recreation center or building an entirely new facility.
Demolishing the old modular trailers is considered a prelude in the school’s redevelopment. During the school’s active years, the trailers served as a library, office space, a teachers’ lounge and a handicapped bathroom.
The old school got a second life in late 2012 when it became a temporary City Hall after Hurricane Sandy pummeled Sea Isle. The police department and other municipal offices moved into the school following severe damage to the old City Hall.
When Sea Isle’s new City Hall opened in 2015, the old school became largely empty again. Discussions began then about possibly repurposing the building as a community recreation facility.
When the city was in the early stages of updating its master plan, a community survey was conducted in 2015 asking the public for suggestions on what should be done with the school. The highest number of respondents, or 36 percent, proposed having the building redeveloped as a park or recreation site.
A 10-member study committee appointed by Mayor Leonard Desiderio recommended last year that the former school should be demolished and redeveloped into a new community recreation complex. The committee concluded that the project could cost as much as $17 million if an indoor pool is included.
The recreation center, if built, should include a modern gymnasium and other amenities, the committee recommended. However, the members were split in their feelings about including an indoor pool.
The committee also studied the possibility of renovating the old school into a recreation center, but concluded that the best option would be to build an entirely new complex.
“After considerable discussion regarding the foregoing options, the members of the committee were unanimous in their opinion that the existing building should be demolished and a new facility be built,” the panel said in a May 16, 2018, memorandum to the mayor and City Council.
According to the memo, a new recreation complex that has an indoor pool would cost an estimated $15 million to $17 million. It would cost $10 million to $12 million to build a recreation center that does not have a pool.
Renovating the old school would be the least expensive option, with an estimated price tag of $2 million, the committee said. The building’s renovation would include adding a new gym, an air-conditioning system, handicap-accessible bathrooms, new windows and landscaping improvements.
Renovations to the old school would be constrained by flood-mitigation requirements. In order to renovate the building without having to upgrade it to current flood-protection standards, the cost of the project could not exceed 50 percent of the structure’s market value, the committee said.
City spokeswoman Katherine Custer stressed that no decisions have been made about the school’s fate. She said the city plans to hold public hearings to gather feedback from residents.
Custer and City Councilman William Kehner discussed the school’s possible redevelopment during the Sea Isle Tourism Commission meeting on March 14.
“It’s a large nut,” Custer said of the cost of either renovating the school or building a new recreation center.
Kehner also noted that no matter what is decided about the school, it will involve a substantial amount of money, so a lot of thought and public input should go into it.
He also detailed reasons that a pool could create a host of concerns, including the possibility of mold developing and injuries from slip-and-falls.
Custer pointed out that lighting needs to be replaced in pool areas about every five to 10 years because of moisture. She also said a pool could result in a lot of add-on costs, including maintenance and the hiring of staff.