9/14/08

Condos vs. Classrooms

The recent development boom threatens to swamp New York City's schools.

Swarms of new students threaten to undermine the quality of the very schools that attracted young families to neighborhoods in the first place.

Complicating the situation is that the high land values that good public schools help create make it harder for the city to buy land to build new ones.

Developers see expensive real estate as appropriate for only the most profitable projects, which doesn't leave much for city schools.

State Sen. Liz Krueger, whose Upper East Side district includes some of the city's most hard-hit areas, grimly joked that "Given the value of real estate in New York City, why should we have any schools, firehouses or police stations at all?

Some of city's most overcrowded schools are in Manhattan's priciest neighborhoods: 6 out of 8 elementary schools on Manhattan's West Side are over-capacity and have had to sacrifice teachers' lounges and art classrooms.

PS 116 in Murray Hill recently hit 113% capacity as it was surrounded by new construction. Students now eat lunch in shifts, starting at 10:30 a.m. and pre-kindergarten classes and classes for the gifted have been dropped.

In a recent report, Comptroller William Thompson identified 9 neighborhoods where the DOE's current 5-year new school construction plan will fall short of population growth. The list includes red-hot DUMBO and Downtown Brooklyn, as well as burgeoning immigrant neighborhood Sunset Park.

According to the report, some 3,000 new apartments are planned around one school in DUMBO -- PS 287 -- with no DOE plan for new school construction in the area.

The report found that there are 2,300 new homes currently slated for the Upper East Side -- but just one school construction project that would add seating capacity. The average elementary school in that neighborhood is operating at 129% of capacity.

City administrators and elected officials have had to be creative about finding ways to convince builders to help address school overcrowding. Their strategies tend to fall into one of two categories.

If the city owns the land, the cost of new school construction comes out of DOE's Educational Construction Fund (ECF), which gets developers to pay the costs of building on public land in exchange for long-term leases.

One of two ECF projects currently underway is the East Side Middle School (MS 114) at 91st Street and First Avenue, next to Azure, a 34-story luxury high-rise.

Project developers DeMatteis Organization and The Mattone Group will pay the entire $45 million cost of building the school.

On May 30, the Azure site came to public attention when a crane collapsed there, killing two people and damaging nearby apartments.

Technically, developers are bound by the same regulations and procedures as the city would be when building a school, but there's no guarantee that private developers won't cut corners on public buildings.

The East Side Middle school will apparently proceed in spite of the accident, although work is suspended at the site.

The other project, at 57th street and 2nd avenue, is bigger and more complicated. Developer World Wide Holdings, Inc. will replace the High School for Art and Design, rebuild PS 59 to increase seating capacity from 400 to 730, and add another school to an interim 63rd Street site.

The second alternative, school development on private land, is more contentious. Requests for re-zoning, the city's ULURP process and the City Council all provide a way in, but re-zoning is not a given.

In the current cases of controversial developers Sheldon Solow and Bruce Ratner, Solow has proposed converting the former Con Ed site on the East River from 34th to 41st Streets into residential and commercial towers.

Solow's Environmental Impact Statement estimates that the project would add 417 new students to the overcrowded local schools, pushing one school to a projected 164% of capacity by 2014.

Solow originally said the city could bus those students to other schools. His firm was eventually persuaded by the city to include a 630-seat school in its plan, barely covering the new students his project will add to the system.

Bruce Ratner agreed to build a school at his Beekman Plaza development in Lower Manhattan, but recently threatened to stop construction unless the city gave him a 421-a tax abatement valid for 20 years.

The ECF believes that public-private partnerships can cure overcrowded schools, but not all elected representatives are sold.

Gale Brewer, City Council member from the Upper West Side, wants new overcrowding measures. The city currently looks at an entire community school district, including all schools and neighborhoods in the district, in determining overcrowding. Crowded schools and neighborhoods within the district can be overlooked as a result.

Brewer blames this method for what she sees as a missed opportunity to build a school in the Riverside South project, where developer Extell handed the city a site, but the DOE, using this method, found no need for a new school.

The department says it will consider taking Brewer's advice next year.

Some elected representatives have suggested that zoning laws be changed to force developers to focus on essential amenities such as schools, rather than things like public plazas, and city council legislation now being discussed could tie new developments directly to new school construction.

But that begs the question of who should build new schools. Should developers, who are not elected and don't necessarily act in the public interest, be charged with new school construction?

Elected officials seem to agree that the city must insure that children moving into new developments have seats in the local schools, but how the city will insure that those seats exist remains to be seen.

The article on Gotham Gazette:
http://www.gothamgazette.com/article/fea/20080902/202/2634

Private schools are also feeling the effects of the "Baby Boom", from the New York Sun:
http://www.nysun.com/new-york/one-school-feels-effects-of-ny-baby-boom/85830/

Will re-zoning make it better, or worse, from the New York Sun.
http://www.nysun.com/new-york/rezoning-talk-upsets-upper-west-side-parents/86406/

More on school overcrowding from Queens Crap via the New York Times:
http://queenscrap.blogspot.com/2008/10/shocking-revelation-schools-are.html

The Gotham Gazette article, as re-blogged on No Land Grab:
http://www.nolandgrab.org/archives/2008/09/the_three_cs_co.html

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