As 2009 draws to a close, we thought we’d paw through our archives to dig up some of the more interesting stories that we covered during the past 12 months. From swine flu to Lincoln Center renovations and unexpected Hudson River air activity, there was rarely a dull moment in Manhattan, especially on the West Side. Below are our highlights, in no particular order.
Bye-Bye Brandeis: The Department of Education caught flack when it announced that the long-troubled Brandeis High School would close, with a grade being phased out each year, starting in fall 2009. Critics claimed the high school was struggling, not failing, and decried the lack of public input on the three new schools slated to take its place: Innovation Plus Diploma, Global Learning Collective and Urban Assembly School for Green Careers. Parents were mollified when education officials started collaborating with community groups to launch a fourth school, named after the Pulitzer Prize-winning author and former public school teacher Frank McCourt. McCourt High School, a small, selective school, will open in fall 2010 and eventually serve 432 students by the 2013-14 school year.
Fordham Fight: Neighbors fought with Fordham University about an expansion plan that would add nine new buildings to the campus, as well as commercial space and two luxury apartment towers, to help fund Fordham’s endowment. Community Board 7 rejected the plan in January, but Borough President Scott Stringer brokered a compromise that helped advance the proposal to the City Planning Commission, and eventually the City Council. After Council Member Gale Brewer netted a few more concessions from the university in June, the project got full approval.
Rents Dip: If there was one upside to the ghastly financial crash that deferred retirement dreams and demolished college savings accounts, it was that rents on the Upper West Side started to become affordable again, at least by New York City standards. Landlords offered to pay broker’s fees and dangled goodies like free iPods and gym memberships in the hopes of luring tenants to vacant apartments. The new pricing standard for one-bedrooms? $1,700, down from $2,200 in February 2008.
Donut Debates: Although the name may sound enticing, preservationists were anything but happy with the way “donuts,” or the collective backyards of a block that form a central green space, were being incorporated into development plans. Four schools—Dwight, York Prep, Chabad preschool and Columbia Grammar and Prep—petitioned the city for permission to expand into rear-yard areas, while neighbors complained of the erosion of common green space and modifications that were at odds with historic designations. In August, Council Member Gale Brewer contacted the City Planning Commission to talk about ways to protect donuts, calling them a “wisely planned and designed natural amenity.”
Dwight, Chabad and York Prep all ultimately received approval for their projects, and Board 7 is set to evaluate a completely revised plan from Columbia Grammar at its Jan. 5 full-board meeting.
Post Office Saved: The Columbus Circle Post Office was weeks away from closure when West Side pols announced that a deal had been reached with the building’s landlord, Alan N. Locker, to stay in the current space. With the post office’s 10-year lease coming due April 30, Locker had reportedly asked for somewhere in the neighborhood of $1.2 million a month in rent, up from about $400,000 a month, for a new lease at 27 W. 60th St. News of the imminent closure came as a surprise when it was first revealed March 31, spurring local elected officials and community leaders to leap into action.
Swine Flu Fears: The H1N1 virus—better known as the swine flu—was the most talked about illness this year. In April and May, when the number of swine flu cases seemed to be rapidly expanding, more than 16 schools closed their doors. That included St. David’s on East 89th Street, which closed May 18 after several students reported flu-like symptoms, and Horace Mann in the Bronx, where end-of-school rituals like exams were canceled and prom and graduation were threatened. By September, Dr. Craig van Roekens, chief medical officer for Manhattan’s Physician Group and a specialist in emergency medicine, estimated that 80,000 to 100,000 New Yorkers had already been exposed to the H1N1 virus. After taking flak in spring for not clearly explaining the process for closing schools, the Bloomberg administration sought to stay ahead of the flu in September by posting daily reports on school absenteeism and stressing prevention basics: wash your hands, sneeze into your arm and stay home if you are sick.
New York Loses Frank McCourt: Beloved teacher, acclaimed author and lifelong education advocate Frank McCourt died July 19. Although most were familiar with his Pulitzer Prize-winning memoir Angela’s Ashes, this newspaper also came to know McCourt as the emcee of the annual Blackboard Awards events, where he dazzled audiences with tales of his days in the classroom. McCourt, perhaps more than anyone, could articulate the idiosyncrasies of education with humor and warmth, and of course that lilting Irish brogue.
State Senate Dems Take Control, Lose Control: When State Senate Democrats were sworn in this January as the new ruling majority, they boasted of a new progressive era: pro-tenant laws, same-sex marriage, gun control and government reform. But the Democrats, with a slim two-seat majority, could not get their house in order. Infighting made passing bills difficult. The conference split on big issues, such as crafting a bailout package for the Metropolitan Transportation Authority last May. The anemic reform measures that did pass were touted as progress because of the bureaucratic morass that is Albany.
Then the June 8 coup happened.
In a parliamentary maneuver, two Democrats—Pedro Espada and Hiram Monserrate—sided with Republicans to put the GOP back in power. Monserrate eventually came back into the Democratic fold. But a month-long stalemate ensued in the evenly divided chamber, grinding Albany to a halt.
After a shake-up in leadership, the stalemate finally ended in July with the Democrats back in power.
Hudson River Drama: First there was the January “Miracle on the Hudson,” Capt. Chesley Sullenberger’s deft landing of U.S. Airways flight 1549, saving all 155 people on board. But an August crash between a helicopter and small plane killed nine and left elected officials demanding stronger regulations governing the use of Hudson River airspace. The rules, which went into effect in November, created separate paths for local and long-distance aircrafts, required local flights to fly below 1,000 feet and set additional requirements for pilots. U.S. Sen. Charles Schumer and Rep. Jerrold Nadler were not impressed, though, and urged the Federal Aviation Administration to consider mandatory flight plans and requiring controllers to be in charge of airspace below 1,000 feet.
H+H Tax Trouble: New York’s most famous bagel purveyor, H+H Bagels, seemed to be taking an Arthur Anderson approach to its accounting this year. The New York Department of Taxation and Finance shuttered both the West 80th Street and 12th Avenue locations in May because the business allegedly failed to pay $6,803 in withholding tax (the taxes taken out of employees’ paychecks) and $16,482 in sales tax. Both branches quickly reopened, but bagel baron Helmer Toro got in trouble again in November, when Manhattan District Attorney Robert Morgenthau indicted him for tax fraud. The stores continue to operate, and bagel lovers everywhere hope Toro shapes up before he’s shut down.
Illegal Hotels, Still: An evergreen story on the Upper West Side continued to make headlines in 2009, with two illegal hotels being targeted by the Mayor’s Office of Special Enforcement. A brownstone at 262 W. 73rd St.—which had been advertised to tourists as “Kore 73”—was found to have illegally subdivided rooms and was issued a partial vacate order Nov. 4. Farther uptown, the Broadway Hotel, at 230 W. 101st St., was partially vacated Dec. 3 after the Department of Buildings declared it “dangerously overcrowded.” The building’s occupancy is roughly 140, but it was equipped for 600 people, according to the city.
Tags: Brandeis High School, Caroline Kennedy, Carolyn Maloney, Closings, Donut, Fordham, Frank McCourt, H+H, Hudson River, illegal hotels, Post Office Saved, Rent, State Senate Dems, Swine Flu, Top Stories 2009
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