Upper West Side parents are pushing back against DOE plans to raze school buildings
Concerns that the Department of Education has offered P.S. 199 (West 70th St) and P.S. 191 (West 61st St) as development sites to be demolished and then rebuilt inside of luxury apartment towers have spread like wildfire through our community. And with good reason. DOE’s consultants drafted and distributed a detailed 80-page “Request for Expressions of Interest” memorandum for developers interested in the sites – and subsequently received dozens of draft plans – which could hugely and negatively impact thousands of children, families and community members without so much as a phone call to our elected officials, Community Board 7, Community Education Council (CEC3), and the affected school communities.
And while ensuring multiple and attractive “benefits” to the prospective developers – including “markets starved of luxury housing” – the DOE memorandum is far less concerned with the negative impacts on our schools and community. The memorandum neither requests nor proposes a definitive and clear plan or discussion of the developers’ (or the DOE’s) responsibilities to our children and families during construction or even where those students will go. Equally troubling, the proposal expects that the new schools will be no larger than the current schools. This despite significant overcrowding district-wide – including at 199 as well as 191 – and a district-wide push for new seats, especially at the middle school level. Incredibly, the DOE proposal doesn’t even require developers to provide additional space for the influx of hundreds of additional school-age families who inevitably will be drawn to the new developments which actively market our schools as a key amenity.
But perhaps the most concerning issue is a developer’s ability to undertake the projects “as of right,” outside of the ULURP process and without community board review or City Council approval that might rectify the project’s shortcomings or scuttle it completely. In fact, the documents provided by the DOE to developers cite this avoidance of local input and accountability as “an important element to the…program…which specifically benefits developers.”
When called out on these and a range of other issues by Borough President Stringer and City Council Member Brewer in strongly-worded letters to Chancellor Walcott, the DOE’s point person on the projects, Jamie Smarr, commenced meetings with elected officials, school officials and the CEC. He claimed that our fears were unfounded, dismissed many of the most contentious points in the offering plan, and promised us written confirmation that the projects WILL indeed be subject to ULURP’s detailed community planning review.
Unfortunately, Mr. Smarr has now left the DOE and no written confirmation of any formal (or informal) community review role – including ULURP – has been received by the CEC or other officials as far as we know.
Some counsel patience and an open-mind in regard to these proposals. I certainly believe that we need to seek creative public/private solutions to build more schools, to strengthen our tax base and to provide more affordable housing. But we have been told that the funding provided under these schemes will simply go to plug operating budgets rather than solve our massive overcrowding and class size issues. And having witnessed the Mayor’s and his DOE’s disdain for parent, community and elected official input over the past seven years as a public school parent and an elected parent leader – and the lack of any real checks and balances inherent in the current system of Mayoral Control over our schools – parents, elected officials and community members must be incredibly skeptical and vigilant during the last 10 months of this administration, and not just in regard to these proposed projects.
This community must fight tooth and nail for our kids, schools and community at P.S. 199 and P.S. 191 and beyond, as we did four years ago in conjunction with Borough President Stringer’s “War Rooms” to get the DOE to admit that its planning process is completely flawed, and set up P.S. 452 to relieve overcrowding at P.S. 87 and P.S. 199. We must bond together to demand that developers take greater responsibility for the increased burdens they put on our schools and infrastructure as we were able to do in large part at Riverside Center in conjunction with CB7 and a range of elected officials; and we must ensure that all kids and communities count equally as this community did so beautifully in fighting the eviction of Innovation Diploma Plus High School from the Brandeis Campus. Ours is strong and principled community with great elected representatives. We will need to all pull together to ensure that the needs of our community and our children, are met.
Noah E. Gotbaum is a member of Community Education Council District 3 and a candidate for City Council on the Upper West Side.
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