In East Flatbush, where the largest green space is a cemetery, the construction of the Shirley Chisholm Recreation Center will be a dramatic addition to the neighborhood. 

With no other rec centers within three miles of the planned building location, the new facility—which is scheduled to be built by the end of 2025 under a new fast-track program—promises to be a community hub for East Flatbush and adjacent sections of the borough.

“Out of the 51 districts in the city of New York, we have the least amount of park space, we don’t have a recreation center, we have the least amount of senior centers,” says City Council member Farah Louis, the Democrat who represents an area that includes East Flatbush, Flatbush, Flatlands, Marine Park and Midwood.

Save for the 96 acres of Holy Cross Cemetery, open space is hard to come by in East Flatbush and there are very few large spots—indoors or outdoors—for people to gather.

“We have seniors who are aging in place but don’t have the support, don’t have recreational activities,” says Louis. “We have youth, who, because of the COVID-19 pandemic, need a place to go. They don’t want to be cooped up at home all day.”

The initial plan for the center—now budgeted to cost about $141 million—includes a gymnasium, an indoor swimming pool, a walking track and a teaching kitchen, which will be particularly important, Louis says: “We have a lot of young people who are interested in becoming chefs.

Louis points to the Dr. Roy Hastick Senior Business Tech Center that is planned to be included in the rec center as “an opportunity to support our minority and women in businesses, particularly those that are immigrant.”

Mayor Bill de Blasio, Council Member Farah Louis and Assemb. Rodneyse Bichotte stand behind the big check showing the city’s funding for the new Shirley Chisholm Recreation Center. (Mayor’s Photography Office)

Where it will rise

The center will be built as part of the three acres occupied by the Nostrand Avenue Playground beside the PS 361 East Flatbush Early Childhood School. The city Department of Design and Construction says that the children’s play area won’t be affected. But the center will be built where basketball courts and artificial-turf fields now stand. 

It’s unclear, however, which elements of the initial plan will make it onto the final design. 

“There will be a public scoping process where we will have meetings with the community, and there will be opportunities for people to submit their comments,” says DDC spokesman Ian Michaels. “We try to give people what they want, but there’s restraints. There’s a restraint about the space of the building, there’s budget constraints, there’s all kinds of other constraints. But we try to do the best with what we have.”

In 2019, the DDC moved from a “design-bid-build” method of construction management to a “design-build” method, which is aimed at speeding up the process. Design and construction firms are engaged by the DDC in partnerships that compete among three teams to present the lowest bid. Under the old system, individual companies bid separately and in two stages—first, architecture firms and then, after after the design was construction companies.

This change promises to make the actual development faster “by two years,” according to Michaels, and, by having firms pitch architecture and construction together, it is also designed to give the DDC more control over the process. 

The Chisholm center contract is expected to be awarded by early 2022, with three teams competing for the bid: Lendlease (US) Construction LMB Inc. and Studio Gang, Leon D. DeMatteis Construction Corp. and Dattner Architects (DeMatteis/Dattner), and Sciame Construction, LLC and Grimshaw Architects P.C.

The teams were selected by DDC from among those that had responded to a request for qualifications in May.

Honoring a pacesetter

Shirley Chisholm is “an icon for women, she’s an icon for the Caribbean community,” said Council Member Farah Louis. (Library of Congress)

Chisholm, the first black woman to serve in Congress, was elected in 1968 to represent central Brooklyn, the borough where she was born to Guyanese and Bajan parents. In 1972, Chisholm became the first Black candidate to seek a major party’s presidential nomination when she ran in Democratic primaries.  

“She’s an icon for women, she’s an icon for the Caribbean community. I’m just glad and honored to have built upon this project,” says Louis, whose district includes New York’s Little Caribbean and Little Haiti.

The fight to get East Flatbush a rec center started nearly 10 years ago, when Public Advocate Jumaane Williams was the local council member. It came as “a response to the police violence and gun violence plaguing an underserved community,” says Alexa Sledge, press officer for his office. Williams, who is challenging incumbent Kathy Hochul for the Democratic nomination for governor, was able to secure $50 million in initial funding.

The increase in money for the Chisholm center comes from funds taken out of the Police Department budget, according to Louis. In 2020, in wake of the George Floyd protests, the city reallocated tens of millions from the NYPD’s nearly $11-billion budget