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Revealed: Forest City would swap school from Building 5 (requires costly deck) to Building 15 (would displace homes)

Moving the school south, most likely
An important and potentially alarming change was quietly disclosed in the Mitigation chapter of the Draft Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement (Draft SEIS) issued 3/28/14 by Empire State Development.

The location for the planned 757-seat, 100,000-square-foot school in the project has been shifted.

Instead of being included, as long expected, in Building 5, over the railyard just east of Sixth Avenue between Pacific Street and Atlantic Avenue (below left), it likely will be placed in Building 15, one block south between Pacific and Dean streets (below right).

The site for Building 5
No explanation is provided, but the move would serve developer Forest City Ratner's interests in multiple ways, while allowing it to fulfill its obligation to provide space for the school early in Phase 2 of the project, which involves all the buildings east of the arena block.

Serving Forest City's interests

First, by not putting the elementary/intermediate school in Building 5, Forest City can continue to delay constructing an expensive deck over the railyard and instead focus on building on terra firma, the four towers on the southeast block of the project (as pledged) as well as Building 15.

Second, placing a much-needed school (to be built out by the city) in the residential tower may moderate concern over the dramatic difference in scale on Dean Street, where two- and three-story row houses would be demolished, leaving a 27-story building next to four-story apartment buildings.

The site for Building 15 extends to the two-story house;
the commercial building (back) also faces demolition
It will still be a glaring juxtaposition. “I don't mind a building that is in context with the others, meaning the same height with architectural guidelines, but small streets shouldn't have large development,” then-City Planning Commissioner Amanda Burden claimed in 2008, talking about the Lower East Side. In the case of Atlantic Yards, the state overrode city zoning, with the city's consent.

Also, installing a school--a clear public use--might mitigate the offensiveness of using eminent domain to dislodge owners and tenants of three modest homes on a residential block.

Though eminent domain has been approved, no effort has begun to condemn those properties, though the clock likely soon will begin ticking.

The site for Building 15 is directly below the site for Building 5, both just east of Sixth Avenue 


Then again, a school--at least if it fronts on Dean Street--would risk interfering with nearby arena loading dock activities to the west across Sixth Avenue as well as a fire station across the street.

(In the photo below, taken last Thursday, note the fire truck sticking out on the sidewalk for washing as well as firefighters' vehicles parked on the sidewalk.)

If the school faces Pacific Street, it might then bear the impacts of construction of the deck over the railyard and then the adjacent building(s). Buses would have to navigate residential Pacific Street and perhaps use residential Carlton Avenue.

If the school fronts on Sixth Avenue, opposite the arena block, it wouldn't interfere with the loading dock, but it could conflict with other arena-related activity, especially when large shows like the circus bring too many trailers to handle and park on neighborhood streets.

Whatever the design, it would be a tight fit. As noted below, the school site apparently cannot accommodate a street-level playground but instead would have "outdoor rooftop play areas." Below, a video of the site for Building 15.

Honing in on the location

According to the Mitigation chapter of the Draft SEIS, Building 15 is not the only possible location:
As per the MEC [Memorandum of Environmental Commitments], the proposed school would be located in one of the Phase II residential buildings, as determined by the project sponsors and the New York City School Construction Authority (SCA) on behalf of DOE. At this time, the project sponsors have identified two possible sites for the potential new school: Building 6 or Building 15. Based upon currently available information, the more likely site for the school would be in Building 15.
However, it's highly unlikely they'd first build a deck for Building 6, which would be located over the railyard adjacent to Building 5, before starting from the corner. Nor do they plan to build a deck while they can first build on terra firma.

There's no explanation as to why Building 5 was dropped, but surely the cost of the deck is a factor.

In an interview with radio host Brian Lehrer in July 2006, Forest City executive Jim Stuckey (since departed) said "we have agreed at Building 5, at Sixth and Atlantic, would make space available, should the city decide to put a school at that location."

The Final Environmental Impact Statement, released in November 2006, said that "Building 5 has been identified as a likely location for the school." That was when a ten-year Atlantic Yards buildout was still contemplated.

The December 2009 Memorandum of Environmental Commitments--which emerged around the same time the state quietly signed contracts giving Forest City Ratner up to 25 years for a project buildout--cited the long-mentioned Building 5 but also left some wiggle room:
It is likely that the School will be located in the lower floors of Building 5 or the first building constructed as part of Phase II. In the event that an alternative location is selected, the School site shall be one of the other residential parcels located east of 6th Avenue as determined by FCRC and DOE.

Building 6 unlikely, what about 1129?

As I said, Building 6 would require an expensive deck, so it's not a plausible candidate. After all, Forest City Ratner executive MaryAnne Gilmartin in October 2012 indicated the firm's intention to build four towers on the southeast block, 1129, after building on the arena block and before building the deck.

The question then arises: why not build a school on Block 1129? I don't know, but Building 15, which is next to the arena block, surely would be better positioned to serve the first residents of Atlantic Yards towers, which will flank the arena.

AY site (blue) straddles two districts
Moreover, Block 1129 will be the site for underground parking; perhaps that might interfere with the construction of a school.

Other concerns about site near Sixth Avenue

The Atlantic Yards footprint, outlined crudely in blue at right, is located mainly in school District 13, and partly in District 15.

“But Building 5, which is mentioned as a possible location, is a highly INAPPROPRIATE site for a school," testified Mary-Powel Thomas, president of District 15 Community Education Council, in September 2006 on the Draft Environmental Impact Statement.

"It’s right in the middle of all the traffic, noise, and air pollution of Flatbush Avenue, Atlantic Avenue, and Fourth Avenue," she continued. "Those streets separate Building 5 from most of the residential sites. Instead, I suggest putting the school or schools within the residential buildings, as far as possible from Flatbush Avenue."

District 15
"I’m still not happy with the Building 5 location,” she said two months later. “It’s right next to the arena and right off Atlantic Avenue. I think Buildings 12 and 13 [in the center of the southeast block] would be the best locations. They’re the farthest away from the hustle and bustle.”

Thomas has left the Community Education Council (CEC) and, as far as I know, neither the District 15 CEC nor the adjacent District 13 CEC have publicly weighed in on the issue of a school. (Here's more on the 32 CECs in the city.)

District 13 vs. District 15

As noted, most of the Atlantic Yards site would not be in District 15, which includes most of Park Slope, as well as neighborhoods south and west. (Maps from NYC DOE School Search.)

Only the portion of the site west of Fifth Avenue, including the arena plaza (and future office tower), and Site 5 (home to P.C. Richard and Modell's, to be replaced by a future tower) would be in northeast tip of District 15.

District 13
Most of the 22-acre site would be in District 13, which includes Prospect Heights, Fort Greene, Downtown Brooklyn DUMBO, a piece of Park Slope, most of Clinton Hill, and part of Bedford-Stuyvesant.

If a school were built just east of Sixth Avenue, it would be in District 13.

But it would not be surprising to see some debate and conflict over its placement, given that District 15 is seen as having stronger schools.

Plan in progress

If Building 15 gets the school, that would make construction more complicated. Right now, a 150-space below-grade garage is planned under the school.

However, under the Reduced Parking Alternative, in which total Atlantic Yards parking is cut to 1200 spaces, the garage under Building 15 would be eliminated. So I'm betting there's no parking under the tower if a school is built there.

One of the three potential construction sequences--worst-case scenarios, thus not necessarily likely--studied in the Draft SEIS shows Building 15 as the first tower constructed, beginning in June 2018 and completed by March 2021.

That's a long time, but it also presumes conventional construction, not modular construction, which is supposed to save time, so neither the date nor the duration are fixed.

According to the Mitigation chapter, Forest City has already begun discussing the school with the city's School Construction Authority (SCA), and there's money in the capital plan:
The DOE’s 2015-2019 Proposed Five-Year Capital Plan, February 2014, proposes to allocate capital funds for the creation of the school facility at Atlantic Yards. Discussion between the project sponsors and SCA regarding the inclusion of the school in either Building 6 or Building 15 have recently commenced. Pending the adoption of the Proposed Capital Plan, finalization of the location of the Phase II school, and approval of that school site pursuant to the SCA’s enabling legislation, the SCA and project sponsors would engage in a collaborative design process. As soon as practicable after receipt of the request from DOE or SCA, the project sponsors would consult and cooperate with SCA in its public review process for site selection, thereafter cooperate with DOE and SCA in their design process in accordance with SCA/DOE practice, and construct the building containing the proposed school as soon as practicable after SCA approves the design of the proposed school, completes its public review process, and authorizes commencement of construction of the core and shell of the school and the financing of the school.
The new school facility would be designed in accordance with DOE’s requirements, and would include standard school facilities such as classroom, administration, and assembly space, gymnasium, cafeteria, library, and outdoor rooftop play areas. The school would have a separate entrance from the other uses within the building.