Thursday, July 02, 2015

A new middle school at B15? There's significant support, but also questions about location, function (updated with CEC 13 letter citing overstated capacity)

Updated of 7/1 coverage 7/2 with mention of CEC 13 letter.

The school, once planned for B5, is now planned for B15
There was vocal support at a public hearing that the school planned for the Atlantic Yards/Pacific Park B15 building be a middle school rather than, as planned, a flexible, mixed elementary/intermediate school.

While such advocates acknowledged the location just east of Sixth Avenue between Dean and Pacific streets was imperfect, they suggested the urgency of a middle school in District 13 trumped such concerns.

So far, several elected officials, Community Board 8, Community Education Council 13 (CEC 13) , and the Prospect Heights Neighborhood Development Council (PHNDC) support such a middle school at B15. But it doesn't mean that, as a tweet from Sen. Jesse Hamilton indicated, "#ProspectHeights is unified behind a new middle school at #AtlanticYards."

Some questions

In fact, those closest to the project, the Dean Street Block Association (DSBA)--which withdrew from PHNDC after the latter signed a settlement agreement regarding the project timetable and oversight--offered a more nuanced statement, questioning the location opposite the arena and police/fire stations, and requesting that the Department of Education better assess local needs.

DSBA seeeks "an all-inclusive plan to avoid overcrowding, reduce the risk our elementary students will have to travel distances to get to school, and improve middle school options."

Regina Cahill, president of the North Flatbush Business Improvement District, also tweeted her concerns about the location--but was told her suggested alternative (the B5 site) would be built too late.

While Community Board 2 just touches Prospect Heights, its constituents--update: people in the northern half of the project site, at least 7 towers, will be in CB 2--will be using the school. CB 2 questioned the location, suggesting the school be moved to the southeast block of the project, in a building contemporaneous with B15.

CB 2 said "the decision on whether the school be designed for elementary or middle school students, or both, should be deferred in order to respond to the needs at the time the school opens." (That may be less efficient, however.)

What does developer want?

Three (now-empty) houses will be demolished for the school
Developer Greenland Forest City Partners has stayed out of the public discussion, but I'd guess they favor the elementary/intermediate school as proposed, which could be a good selling point to entice families to move into the project.

As I've noted, the choice of a school for B15 takes the focus off the fact that it's a 100% market-rate tower built at 27 stories next to four-story apartment buildings (on Dean Street), on a site assembled after eminent domain was used to acquire property from homeowners.

The case for a middle school

The case for a middle school was suggested in a series of tweets yesterday from CEC 13:
1/ The crisis of D13 middle school quality is in the here and now
2/ one building can not address capacity needs of all DoBro & AY/PP
3/ Key ? from @PS9BklynPTO, 11, 20 fams: "where do we go for middle?
4/ if we just add elem capacity we only make middle school prob worse
5/ new @psms282 review hits key points http://insideschools.org/component/schools/school/602 …
6/ ... Solid elems like 282 must pull from across Bk to fill seats
7/ ... While D13 middles "struggle... to find academic footing"
8/ w notable exceptions solid d13 elems must fill seats w out-of dist
9/ in lg part because d13 parents fear lack of middle school choices
10/ so question is where are the quality d13 middle school seats?
Note that they're not arguing that District 13 itself lacks middle school seats, just "quality" ones, and (presumably) near Prospect Heights, where parents have been advocating for seats. It's a legitimate policy argument.

But it does not necessarily reflect the rationale for the school in Atlantic Yards/Pacific Park, which, according to the Second Amended Memorandum of Environmental Commitments, is "mitigation for the projected significant adverse impact to the supply of elementary and intermediate school seats" caused by the construction of project apartments.

The larger context, as CB 2 points out, is the lack of new schools commensurate with new construction, with no response from school officials to the school seats required by construction of more than 5,000 new apartments built since Downtown Brooklyn was rezoned in 2004.

Update: CEC 13 cites misleading statistics

According to the CEC letter (bottom):
Although the site plan does not indicate the projected growth of intermediate school population, the 2014 Final Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement (FEIS) for the Pacific Park project discloses that the project “would result in a significant adverse impact to intermediate schools.” Please note that the data for two of the three intermediate schools presented in the 2014 FEIS presents a potentially misleading picture of middle school seats actually available to area students. I.S. 571 was closed in 2013. I.S. 340, despite being located within the confines of District 13, is a District 17 middle school, which does not provide seats to District 13 middle school students. Thus, the FEIS overstates intermediate school capacity in Sub-District 1 of District 13 by at least 550 seats.
....Moreover, we believe there is a least as much capacity to accommodate the new elementary school students that might otherwise be accommodated within the proposed B15 site instead within at schools such as – especially - PS 9, along with PS 282, PS 133, PS 20, and PS 11, especially when consideration is made to the significant percentage of out-of-district 13 students some of these schools presently serve. Crucially we believe PS 9, just one block away, should be the zoned school for new residents in the Atlantic Yards / Pacific Park, and all of the western portion of Prospect Heights between Atlantic Avenue and Flatbush Avenue.
(Emphasis in original)

It's surely dismaying that official documents are not accurate, which makes it difficult to have an informed discussion.

The PHNDC letter

Here's the summary from PHDNC, reflecting the case many are making, headlined "PHNDC calls for dedicated middle school at Atlantic Yards site":
On May 15, 2015, the New York City School Construction Authority [SCA] issued a notice for the development of a 616-seat primary and intermediate school to be housed in building B15 at the Atlantic Yards site. The building is slated to begin construction in July of 2016.
Citing the longstanding need for a middle school to serve students from Prospect Heights and its environs, in comments to the notice submitted to the SCA today, PHNDC called for the proposed facility to instead be a dedicated middle school for District 13 students. "The SCA and DOE should issue direction that the developer design the facility as a dedicated middle school as soon as possible so to take advantage of these opportunities without risking its projected September 2018 opening," wrote PHNDC Chair Gib Veconi. In separate comments submitted to SCA, Community Education Council 13 and Community Board 8 also called for the facility to be dedicated as a middle school.
PHNDC further noted the challenges of siting a school close to an arena, a police station, and a fire house. Mr. Veconi wrote, "Therefore, it will be incumbent upon City agencies—including DOE, DOT, NYPD, and the Office of Film, Theater and Broadcast—to coordinate efforts that ensure the safety of students entering and leaving the school is maintained, and disruptions to the neighboring residents are minimized. The SCA and the DOE must explain how that coordination will be accomplished, and what protocols will be established, before plans for the school are approved."
Finally, PHNDC called on the SCA and Department of Education to commit to a public review process for the school's design that will include community input.
According to the full PHNDC comments (also bottom), the primary schools near Atlantic Yards "have seen dramatic improvement" but parents have few options, with few open seats in "[h]igh-performing middle schools... configured for grades K-8."

PHNDC noted that there is more potential capacity for elementary school seats at places like PS 9, built as a primary school but now also housing an intermediate charter school.

PHDNC said school officials "must assess whether the school will represent an impact to the [nearby] Dean Playground, and develop a plan to mitigate the impact." It did not mention the potential impact of the construction of the B1 office tower over the arena plaza, which would temporarily shift an area entrance to the the east side of the arena.

PHNDC suggested that school officials "SCA present to the community and its elected representatives a near-term plan for addressing capacity issues associated with increased residential development in downtown Brooklyn and at the Atlantic Yards site," given that the 616 seats planned are less than a third of increased need projected in Atlantic Yards project documents, not to mention "thousands of apartments recently completed, in progress, or planned for downtown Brooklyn."

Community Board 2 letter

A letter (in full below) from the executive committee of CB 2 similarly noted that there would be nearly three times the need from Atlantic Yards/Pacific Park residents itself.

CB 2 noted that the SCA did not consider an alternative site, but "building B13, on Block 1129 (bounded by Vanderbilt Avenue, Dean Street, Carlton Avenue and Pacific Street), has the same construction timetable as B15 but is further from the arena, the major thoroughfares, and the public safety facilities. Community Board 2 encourages the SCA to consider this building as an alternative site."

Regarding the focus of the school, CB 2 said the plan should be decision should be deferred, and " a range of concurrent solutions should be considered and implemented by the Department of Education and the SCA. These include strategies to make the existing CSD13 intermediate schools more attractive to parents and exploration of a more porous boundary between districts 13 and 15."

Dean Street Block Association

DSBA (letter in full below) calls the "the new school... scaled insufficiently to meet community needs" and the location "a poorer choice than most." Though background conditions changed, with more of a capacity shortfall, there was no increase in the requirement for the developer, which has long been required to provide 100,000 square feet of space for a school.

"In a departure from what is detailed in the Project agreements, it is likely to be delivered 5 buildings (1,500 units) after the significant adverse impact emerges," wrote the DSBA. "Unique conditions at the site will deliver poorer and potentially less healthy classrooms, less safe pedestrian access, poorer open space, and unique community impacts including to other community facilities than other potential options."

"Ideally, a site would be selected in the Project looking at a range of variables including the timing the school can be opened relative to the emergence of the significant adverse impact, the quality of its potential classrooms and open space, proximity to transit, pedestrian safety, drop-off strategies, and impact on its surroundings," according to the letter.

"Studies, including for traffic and pedestrians, could be done across a range of options to help select the best location. With the exception of proximity to transit, B15 falls short of most other building site options east of 6th Avenue depending on the variable assessed," states the letter, which notes, among other things, the impact of arena operations and the planned B1 tower.

"Because the proposed 616 seat school fails to meaningfully absorb the number of students being introduced into District 13 schools," states the DSBA letter, "two problems are now being unacceptably pitted against each other: the priority of ensuring elementary students don’t travel distances to go to school and. the need the District 13 CEC has identified for 'quality' middle school options in the district."







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