Thursday, June 04, 2015

At hearing on planned school, parents, electeds urge it be middle-school only; some residents warn about dangerous impacts near arena, construction

Scroll to bottom for videos, by Raul Rothblatt.

District 13 map via Brooklyn Eagle
Two messages came through last night on a hearing for a proposed 616-seat primary/intermediary school facility in the base of B15, the 27-story market-rate rental tower planned for the 100-foot-wide plot east of Sixth Avenue between Dean and Pacific streets.

First, parents of students attending schools in District 13, as well as elected officials, unanimously urged that the school be a middle-school only, given the dearth of standalone middle-schools—and middle-school seats, in general—in District 13 schools, which range from Brooklyn Heights to Bedford-Stuyvesant, mostly north of Flatbush Avenue.

Less universally, but insistently, residents near the proposed site warned that it could be enormously tricky for students, given the building’s adjacency to the Barclays Center, fire and police department units, and significant new construction.

For example, barely discussed was the fact that, if and when Building 1 is constructed over the arena plaza, during construction the main arena entrances will be relocated to the north and east side of the arena. The latter would be very close to school entrances if they are near B15's north side on Pacific Street. Also, the B4 and B5 towers would be constructed very near the school.

The school once destined for B5 is now aimed for B15
Alternatives possible?

Taking it all in equably was Kenrick Ou, Director, Real Estate Services at New York City School Construction Authority (SCA), who promised to share the concerns with colleagues.

Though the SCA has said that no alternative sites have been considered—given that the school would help accommodate the increase in need fostered by Atlantic Yards—he stated that "by no means was this a done deal."

That raised the question as to whether another site in the Atlantic Yards/Pacific Park complex might be considered.

Ou said the reason the proposal said primary/intermediate school was to allow for flexible design, not necessarily mandating an instructional model. “Given the very strong feedback, I'm bringing this back to DOE [Department of Education] to begin a long conversation,” he said.

To some degree, the process is opaque. Given that the school is being constructed within a shell built by project developer Greenland Forest City Partners, subject to general design guidelines for the building, no plans likely will be available before the project proceeds, Ou acknowledged.

Ou welcomed formal input from both Community Education Council (CEC) 13, the elected parent group, and Community Board 8, which held the hearing last night and the CNR Center at Park Place and Classon Avenue.

Public comments will be accepted through June 29 at sites@nycsca.org or NYCSCA, 30-30 Thomson Avenue, Long Island City, NY 11101 (Attention Ross J. Holden). Community Board 8 Education Committee co-chair Sharon Wedderburn reminded people to send copies to BrooklynCB8@gmail.com.

Kenrick Ou at CB 8
Ou explained that the SCA, which implements capital projects on behalf of Department of Education (DOE), must bring sites for approval of the mayor and City Council—a process he likened to a “compressed ULURP,” or the Uniform Land Use Review Procedure typically used for construction.

He said the SCA “assessed the B15 site, whether a 100,000 square foot school would be appropriate, and we believe that it is.”

CEC 13's concerns

Dave Goldsmith, president of CEC 13, noted that the CEC, which serves to channel public input after mayoral control replaced local school board, serves as an advisory body, with the power to determine zones for schools.

“We desperately throughout New York City need schools to be built, especially in areas being developed so rapidly like Downtown Brooklyn,” he said. (There’s been a major outcry from residents in new towers that the public infrastructure hasn’t caught up.)

“We appreciate the fact that somehow the powers that be have been able to wrest a school out of these freeloading develop—“ Goldsmith said, catching himself. “We appreciate the fact that this developer has decided to pony up.”

(The requirement for the school was part of the public approval process managed by Empire State Development and, as I wrote, required as a partial mitigation for the increased need for school seats engendered by the 6,430 new apartments.)
From the CBA

Note that the Atlantic Yards Community Benefits Agreement (CBA) signed in 2005 initially proposed four charter schools in the area near Atlantic Yards, resulting in part from the vision of then Assemblyman Roger Green, a longtime supporter of charter schools.

No discussion of those schools has proceeded, and the audience last night, at least, was vigorously opposed to charter schools. At the end of the evening, when pressed, Ou said, "I don't think I can say it would never be a charter school. The building would be owned and occupied by DOE."

Green, who left office in 2006, and Joe Coello, who heads the CBA signatory Brooklyn Voices for Children (formerly the Downtown Brooklyn Educational Consortium), were in the audience last night but didn't comment publicly.

“Our capacity has approved dramatically over last few years,” Goldsmith said. “Our parents are wondering where their children who are attending these excellent elementary schools, where they’re going to go. District 13 has been robbed of its freestanding middle schools...We feel very strongly that this school become a middle school, not K-8… that it should be available and accessible, zoned for every child in District 13... as opposed to being K-8 and just serve people who reside in Atlantic Yards and the immediate area."

Elected officials

Assemblywoman Jo Anne Simon said, “I completely endorse the notion of this being a middle school... My concern is, at 616 seats, it won't be enough to address the needs of District 13.

Jim Vogel, representing Senator Velmanette Montgomery, said the Senator had “some reservations and questions about the site,” given its adjacency to the arena loading dock, a firehouse on Dean Street, and the “the fabled covering of the railyards, which are going to be a heavy construction zone until 2025.”

Raul Rothblatt, representing Senator Jesse Hamilton, said the Senator also endorsed a middle school. Would the school be K-8, he warned, it might separate new and existing residents, Atlantic Yards residents seeing it as "their" school. “The issues that Jim brought up are important, but the top priority is the middle school.”

A representative for Assemblyman Walter Mosley also endorsed a middle-school and called for more than usual transparency in the process, given the tangled history of Atlantic Yards. Also speaking was a rep of Council Member Laurie Cumbo, also supporting a middle-school.

Barbara Sherman, a representative of Public Advocate Letitia James, who formerly represented the area on City Council, said the best-case scenario was a middle-school, but if the school is K-8, there should be a plan for middle-school seats.

A representative of Empire State Development, which oversees/shepherds Atlantic Yards/Pacific Park, was present, as were two community relations staffers from Atlantic Yards junior partner Forest City Ratner. (The majority owner of the project going forward is Greenland Group, owned by the government of Shanghai, which owns 70% of Greenland Forest City Partners.)

Public concerns

Parents said the lack of middle schools has led families to move to ensure their elementary school-age children have seats when they hit sixth grade.

Maggie Spillane, an incoming CEC member and PS 9 parent, noted battles in which charter schools have been co-located with public schools rather than having the latter expand to eighth grade. “We are very, very underserved,” she said. “Particularly students who are not at K-8 schools are underserved.”

“Maybe we wouldn't pick it as a first pick,” she said of the B15 location, “but we don't have a middle school.… We look right across Flatbush Avenue [to District 15], where there are several mid- to large-capacity middle schools.”

Gib Veconi of the Prospect Heights Neighborhood Development Council (PHNDC) noted that the increased seats represent less than a third of the projected demand caused by Atlantic Yards. “We’d like to be clear we take no issue with proposed location,” he said, a sentiment not shared by some others in the neighborhood.

“Any suggestion that it will be built primarily to serve Atlantic Yards residents is totally unacceptable,” he said, noting the significant subsidies and government help for the project.

"While the 616 seats to be provided in this facility might be considered a mitigation for the impacts of the Atlantic Yards project, the facility itself is not a mitigation, it's a public asset,” he said. "And the additional seat capacity is fungible. It can and should be used throughout District 13 to better align both new and existing facilities with needs, and at all grade levels. In the case of this community, the greatest need is for a middle-school accessible to all of its students. No such school currently exists in Prospect Heights."

(I had criticized the discussion of the school a “benefit,” which is defined as “an advantage or profit gained from something.” A mitigation makes up for a loss, so it’s tough to call it a benefit. But Veconi was right to call it an “asset,” defined as a “useful or valuable thing.”)

Rob Underwood, a member of CEC 13, pointed to the troubled history of Atlantic Yards. He then spoke about the interplay between District 13 and nearby District 15 around middle school choice “There's a very real migration from District 13 into District 15,” he said, given families seeking middle-school spaces. “There's a perception, and maybe a bit of a reality, that there's some quality issues regarding District 13 middle schools.”

Location concerns

Peter Krashes of the Dean Street Block Association noted the adjacency to the firehouse, police precinct, and construction. “The school could potentially be exposed to seven-eight years of construction.”

He said his group wanted to learn more about the analysis of bus drop-offs and pedestrian safety. He asked if the city had a copy of the most likely construction schedule for the project. “It might move B5 and B6 [over the railyard] forward compared to what's been disclosed so far.”

Pointing to 2021 [corrected] as a date (in some project documents) where the impact of school needs would occur, Krashes, “what you want to do is put the school that's opening at that time… This is a public asset once it's built... let's get the best public asset.”

Regina Cahill, a 40-year resident at Flatbush and Sixth Avenue and president of the North Flatbush Business Improvement District, observed, “It’s difficult for us to talk about how a school is going to look without renderings, a site plan, schematics… How are you going to handle buses. field trips? What about lunch deliveries. what about faculty parking?

Ou said that this site would be “moving forward into construction sooner,” beginning next year and open in September 2018. “Our goal would be to try and have the school online as quickly as possible.” He said that the school by no means would be only for Atlantic Yards residents.

He agreed that SCA would talk with the developer and ESD to research controls in place “and whether additional controls are necessary.” Feedback on how the building should be programmed, he said, “should happen while a school is being built.”

Atlantic Yards uber-opponent Patti Hagan suggested that the school wouldn’t appeal to the rich people who will live in the project and send their kids to private schools. (Well, there’s condo-rich, and there’s renters.)

Hagan suggested that two historic houses at the B15 site be saved and used “to instruct the kids in historic preservation and give them a sense of place... I don't think Ratner and his Chinese communist building partner should be allowed to put a school there.”

Process questions

Asked if they’d proceed without making design plans public, Ou said “we would not typically have design renderings,” but there were constraints already in the design of the building.

Vogel suggested that “it might be easier to look within a one-mile radius” for a school site.

One Dean Street resident called the location “the worse place” in the Atlantic Yards site for a school, given congestion on Dean Street involving traffic, the bike lane, and public services.

“By no means is this a done deal.” said Ou, “We've done our assessment, we believe the conditions are manageable.” Part of the logic was the need to get the school online soon. “Is there a community consensus that we should wait, or is there a strong need now?” (In the room, sentiment differed.)

He noted that construction detours—currently very vexing for neighbors—will change over the years.

Veconi asked about project milestones. Ou said the between the SCA and the developer hasn't been signed.

“I’ve got to believe for a building that going into the ground in 12 months, there are some dates,” Veconi said.

Ou said that, while the developer has to start by summer 2016, unlike with fully designed SCA project, “when you partner with a developer, private side construction doesn't have to have the full package.”

Wayne Bailey, president of the 78th Precinct Community Council, noted that Sixth Avenue between Bergen Street and Atlantic Avenue for 63 days, including construction impacts and protests. He noted impacts from special events like the MTV Video Music Awards and the NBA All-Star Game.

He asked if SCA was prepared for the construction of B1.

“I don't have an answer,” Ou said.

“The timelines are very important,” Goldsmith said. “We need to be in communication with you before decisions are made... We're very concerned with the use of the building, and the middle school... It couldn't be soon enough that we sit all of us together, and work on those timeline.”

Ou urged people to send comments, and noted that the City Council makes the ultimate decision.

Jo Anne Simon



Rob Underwood




Gib Veconi



Peter Krashes



Maggie Spillane



Patti Hagan

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