By Roland Li
“Overcrowding in the southern district has reached crisis proportions,” said Noah Gotbaum, president of District 3’s Community Education Council, which covers the West Side from 59th Street up to Harlem.
The parent council, along with Community Board 7 and the District 3 President’s Council, organized a public hearing May 24 at P.S. 199. The meeting was part of the 60-day public hearing period for Riverside Center, after which Board 7 will make a non-binding recommendation regarding the entire project. That process began after the Department of City Planning certified the project May 24. A City Council vote, which is scheduled for September, will ultimately approve, reject or modify the project. That decision will likely be heavily influenced by residents’ opinions.
“This is your opportunity to have a voice,” said Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer at the meeting. “We cannot think small. We have to stay big.”
Stringer’s office will also issue an advisory opinion on the development.
Extell Development Co., Riverside Center’s developer, has committed to a school as part of the massive project in part to appeal to residents who might object to the plan. Extell is obligated as part of the proposal to build out the school to 75,000 square feet. The city has the option to pay for additional space, up to a total of 150,000 square feet.
“The 150,000-square-foot school is planned to be in one of the first two buildings built and its size is what was specifically requested by the city’s School Construction Authority,” said George Arzt, spokesman for Extell.
The entire Riverside Center includes five buildings spanning West 59th to 61st streets between West End Avenue and Riverside Boulevard, with a proposed 2,500 residential units. The project also includes retail space, a hotel and parking lots, and is expected to be completed in 2018. An exact completion date for the school portion is undecided.
Parents want the school to be large enough to accommodate kindergarten through 8th grade, with six classes per grade, totaling more than 1,000 students. They also want outdoor playground space, cafeterias, gymnasiums, computer labs and science and art facilities. Support for these initiatives was virtually unanimous at the hearing, but it’s unclear whether the current design could accommodate all those amenities. There is also no designated outdoor play space for children in the current design, something that parents want.
Currently, some District 3 elementary schools, like P.S. 199 and P.S. 87, have waitlists, while others are near capacity. Students who manage to get into overcrowded schools have to eat lunch as early as 10 a.m., parents said. Separate departments are forced to share classrooms because of lack of space, and one parent even reported “rampant lice” due to crowded closets at P.S. 84, which is at 97 percent capacity.
The spike in enrollment can be partly attributed to the many residential buildings that have been developed in the area. Those include a 19-story rental tower at 200 W. 72nd St. and Broadway, and a 42-story building at 150 Amsterdam Ave. and West 67th Street, which brought around 500 rental units to market, according to Michelle Ciulla Lipkin, co-president of the PTA at P.S. 199. Her school has grown from 537 to 735 students in the last five years, with a kindergarten class that has almost doubled in size.
“If you are going to build a large high rise—or 10—in a neighborhood, you need to build schools,” she said.
Board 7 also wants 20 percent of the residential units in the development to be affordable housing, up from the planned 12 percent. The board has also proposed landmarking the Con Edison IRT Powerhouse and creating more open space.
More public hearings on Riverside Center are scheduled for June and July.