Monday, September 14, 2015

As school at B15 moves ahead, advocates talk up middle school; Community Boards' concern about location played down

Last week, at a brief City Council subcommittee hearing Tuesday and a perfunctory committee vote Wednesday, the school planned for the B15 tower in Atlantic Yards/Pacific Park moved toward approval, which should come in a full Council vote this Thursday, Sept. 17, at 1:30 pm.

The vote concerned only the location of the 100,000 square-foot, 616-seat school, which the School Construction Authority has presented, tentatively, as an elementary/intermediate facility.

However, only one of the three people testifying at the subcommittee hearing conveyed any of the concerns expressed about the location, and barely so, though all three community boards nearby have expressed qualms.

Remember, the location is right across from the Barclays Center, on the east side of Sixth Avenue between Dean and Pacific streets, very near a police station and fire station, and with no ground-level outside space.

More clear was the significant public support, including most local elected officials, for the facility as a dedicated middle-school, which is lacking in Community School District 13. That was not up for a vote, but surely aimed to influence the Department of Education. There was no mention of the position--notably, from Community Board 2--that the decision should wait.

Those testifying were Kendrick Ou of the School Construction Authority and Gib Veconi and Maggie Spillane, two advocates for M.S. One Brooklyn, the dedicated middle school. There was no testimony from Community Board 8, which represents the location for the school, and the position of CB 8--supportive of a middle-school, concerned about the location--emerged in somewhat veiled form.

Interestingly, there was some skepticism about the school at the Subcommittee on Landmarks, Public Siting, and Maritime Uses, and a small amount at the overall Land Use Committee, but none had anything to do with the qualms raised at a public hearing in Brooklyn.

News coverage

Politico reported briefly 9/10/15, Pacific Park school clears Council committee vote. Brownstoner also reported that day, City Council to Vote on Site for Pacific Park/Atlantic Yards School, citing activist Gib Veconi's message about the lobbying for a "dedicated middle school at the Atlantic Yards site with a curriculum built around arts, STEM, and dual language."

A representative of Greenland Forest City Partners told Brownstoner, that, after the siting is concluded, “Greenland Forest City will construct a 100,000 sf school on lower floors of mixed use building with residential units above. The school is a flexible K-8 616 seat school allowing for both primary and/or middle school…Greenland Forest City Partners will manage both the core and shell and the fit out of the school. It will break ground in 2016 and open in 2018.”

At the subcommittee

Kenrick Ou, Senior Director for Real Estate Services for the New York City School Construction
Authority, was the first presenter, according to the transcript (bottom).

"Brooklyn Community Board number 8 held its public hearing on the site plan on June 3rd, 2015 and subsequently submitted written comments expressing concerns over the proposed location of the school at B15 and also recommending that a school facility developed on the site be used to serve middle school students only," he related.

He didn't specify the concerns, nor did he add that Community Board 2 expressed concerns about the

"Community Education Council number 13 did not hold a public hearing but did submit written comments to the SCA recommending that the proposed school facility be used to serve middle school students. The City Planning Commission recommended in favor of the proposed site and also recommended that Brooklyn Community Board number 8’s recommendations be taken into consideration."

"The SCA has considered all comments received on the proposed site plan and affirms the site plan pursuant to Section 1731 of the Public Authority’s Law," Ou said, essentially dismissing CB 8's concerns. He did not mention the position of Community Board 2, which includes much of the Atlantic Yards site and thinks the school should move, or that of nearby Community Board 6, which supports the middle school idea but also thinks the location should be reconsidered.

Chair Peter Koo asked when the school would  open. Ou said by September 2018. He noted that SCA was asking the developer for "design of a school facility that will be flexible and appropriate to serve the instructional needs of students from pre-kindergarten up through grade eight." The DOE's decision "more typically occurs in the year to a year and a half" before occupancy.

Asked about athletic and recreational physical education facilities, Ou cited as an example the Spruce Street School in the base of the Forest City-built, Frank Gehry-designed tower in Lower Manhattan..

"To walk through that school building and compare the spaces to standalone school buildings," he said, "I... I think that... that it’s a very much a... a comparable quality and the standards are unchanged.

Council Member Inez Barron, who has succeeded husband Charles Barron as the Council gadfly, called Atlantic Yards "a fiasco from the beginning," noted that no apartments had been built so far, and asked if the timeline was reasonable. (She said she thought the timeline had been pushed back to 2030. Actually, it was once pushed back to 2035, but since was moved forward to 2025.)

Ou said that the developer has brought in a partner--Greenland--that brings resources and a new commitment to the schedule, but acknowledged that, in mixed use developments, the city cannot assure a timeline.

He added, in response to Barron's concern, that "it would be extremely unlikely" to use the school for for high school students "given the very strong existing and projected need at both the primary and middle school levels in... in... in this geography."

Some questions

Council Member Rosie Mendez noted a stalled site near her district and asked what would happen in this case.

"I cannot speak to the larger obligations that the developer may have to the state," Ou responded.

(According to the Second Amended Memorandum of Environmental Commitments: "As mitigation for the projected significant adverse impact to the supply of elementary and intermediate school seats, FCRC shall, if requested by the New York City Department of Education or the New York City School Construction Authority prior to the date that is 18-months prior to the anticipated commencement of construction of the first Phase II residential building constructed after completion or substantial completion of each of the Phase I residential buildings (or such other date agreed to in writing by FCRC, DOE and ESD), convey or lease to DOE, space within a development parcel sufficient in size to allow for the development of an approximately 100,000 gross square foot elementary and intermediate public school of contiguous space, a portion of which shall be located on the ground floor of the building.")

"At this point in the General Project Plan was adopted in 2006 was amended most recently in 2014, we have identified with the developer the proposed location which is the one that we’re advancing now on the east side of Sixth Avenue between Pacific Street and Dean Street within the B15 building," Ou responded.

"So what kind of amenities is the developer getting? What kind of bonuses, tax breaks for providing a school?" asked Mendez, adding that they should be conditioned on the school meeting deadlines.

Ou first answered narrowly, saying SCA was providing nothing, but the project came through Empire State Development, the state economic development agency.

After Mendez pressed him on benefits, Ou said, "I will tell you I think this is extremely complicated to analyze the whole scenario under which an arena and over a dozen residential buildings and you know--"

"I don’t care about complicated. That’s why you’re here," Mendez shot back. "You’re supposed to un-complicate these things for me and answer the questions. If we are going to give... and
I’m assuming we’re giving this developer some kind of tax break or something... and we are going to
possibly get a school, we don’t know when, if they start construction 2018. Then I need to know all
those answers before I vote on this."

Ou said he thought delay an unlikely scenario but if there were delays, "the SCA has been asked
before in other parts of the city look at other... other ways of trying to address the local community’s need for additional school seats."

Council Member Maria del Carmen Arroyo asked, "Does this site lend itself to enable the authority to build the school should the rest of the project stall?"

No, said Ou.

Mendez asked about "what the zoning envelope is and what it allows for the school and the building maximum height?" and reflected that, in her district, a school had been sited contrary to zoning and had to be shrunken.

Ou--not pointing out that a zoning override by the state made zoning irrelevant--said he'd be happy to provide the specifics of the General Project Plan.

Public testimony

Veconi, representing the Prospect Heights Neighborhood Development Council, said, "Based on our review of the project documents we believe that the proposed site in B15 represents the best opportunity for a very much needed public school facility in District 13 to be provided at the Atlantic Yards site as has been agreed to under the terms of the project agreements."

"Beyond that we have joined with Community Board 8 with Community Education Council of 13 and... and... and elected officials to call for the facility at B15 to be a dedicated middle school," he continued. "And we believe that’s critical because District 13 currently lacks a standalone middle school of the type that exist in other districts like the district 15 which is... which is neighboring to us. So in fact we lose families from District 13 by the time their children get towards the end of primary school because they perceive there are no... there are not sufficient middle school options in District 13."

He cited the MS One Brooklyn Coalition, which has support from Community Board 8, CEC 13, PHNDC, and elected officials.

"And to Council Member Barron’s comments earlier we believe it’s very important to make a commitment to make this a dedicated middle school site now so the facilities can be built out with a type of physical education facilities, laboratory facilities, and other educational amenities that are appropriate for middle school students..."

He tried to answer background questions, saying that the Atlantic Yards Project has "received approximately $300 million in state and city direct public tax dollars, zoning overrides that have significantly increased the value of the land, and access to the extraordinary power of imminent domain to accumulate the property that’s necessary for the site." (I'd add below-cost public land.)

"And the 100,000 square feet of space for a public education facility there is an important asset that the public is able to take with them from this project," Veconi said, not using the term "mitigation." "I’m not going to get into whether it all balances out in the end or not. But in fact this is a very important public asset that’s being provided by the project and we are very much hopeful that it will be used to fill an urgent need in District 13."

Spillane introduced herself as "a parent of two children at PS9 which is the current zoned local school in the Prospect Heights community where the new facility would be located" and a new member of CEC 13.

"We don’t have a middle school... district middle school in Prospect Heights," she said. "We don’t have one within walking distance. In contrast there are four elementary school buildings within walking distance of the proposed site. The lack of suitable standalone middle school in District 13 is an issue not just for our current middle school students who tend to be co-located in very small spaces in elementary school buildings that are not appropriate for middle school learning this also causes a trickle-down effect to our elementary schools because families who are more savvy and who have access to better resources and... and can transport their children long distances tend to leave the district elementary schools well before middle school hits. And that causes a lot of difficulties in terms of integration, diversity, and stability in our elementary schools."

"We understand that the DOE in some cases prefers to wait. We don’t think... we don’t think that our children can wait," she said. "And so we think that the DOE needs to get with the community sooner rather than later and make whatever decisions they need to make in order to construct this as a dedicated middle school for not just the children of Prospect Heights but for all of District 13."

"The Community Board did submit testimony to the SCA with respect to the siting and Community Board 8 did call for the site to be used as a dedicated middle school," Veconi said, trying to add that Community Board 6 later supported the school.

The vote

Arroyo voted not, saying, that the SCA did not control the site. Brooklyn Council Member Steve Levin voted yes and added his support for a middle school.

Barron abstained. "The Atlantic Yards’ history is from its origins [is] one that has not regarded what it is that the community saw was in its best interest. Someone asked what benefits did they got. They got the benefits when they got the land at the price that they paid. It’s on record. I don’t want to cite it without having it accurately before me. We don’t know that the construction they promised that they would use neighborhood people, that there would be jobs that would be created and they have since decided that they’re going to use pre-fab for the residential. They’ve not given us any data from engineers as to how high you can successfully build with pre-fab. I don’t know this particular siting is going to include that or not. [Only one building is modular, so far.] The other concern I have is that as the School Construction Authority as we have said has quality construction with the school I would like to know what involvement... what oversight the School Construction Authority would have over the developer who actually will build the facility. And there’s no indication as to what that interaction would be so I’m abstaining on on that."

At Land Use

At the full committee hearing, after noting that the subcommittee recommended approval of a range of measures, Chair David Greenfield asked if anyone had questions or remarks. He then called for a vote.

The school measure passed unanimously, but with one abstention, from Barron: "I have no faith that the developer of that site will proceed in a timely manner for the completion of the school, and at this point, there is no condition for SCA to have any oversight in the construction of the school."

What was missing

Interestingly, at the public meeting of the Atlantic Yards Community Development Corporation on 7/28/15, Nizjoni Granville, Chair of Community Board 8, asked if the site was set in stone. At a CB 8 hearing, she noted, "people were not happy with the spot, they have safety concerns."

"Site selection is made by SCA and the Department of Education, not this body," responded Forest City Ratner executive Ashley Cotton, who added that it would be subject to a City Council vote.

"He sounded very surprised," Granville observed regarding Ou's posture toward some concerns raised at the hearing. Ou didn't bring them up before the Council, however.

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