Dept. of Ed Plays Russian Roulette with School Buildings

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Parents are outraged that the DOE can't tell them which of two possible Upper West Side schools will be demolished and rebuilt

The Upper West Side community has come down hard on the Department of Education for not communicating to the public about possibly demolishing and rebuilding P.S. 191 on West 61st Street, and P.S. 199 on West 70th Street. At a meeting last week with Community Board 7 and the Community Education Council for District 3, the DOE revealed that it only plans to rebuild one of three schools: P.S. 191, P.S. 199 or The School of Cooperative Technical Education on the Upper East Side, and that the plans are only in the preliminary stages.

"Why are we concerned? The incredible lack of notice," said Mark Diller, the chair of Community Board 7. "We only found out about the project because a P.S. 199 parent who reads Crain's noticed an ad announcing expressions of interest for three city owned sites. They gave addresses but never said that they are public schools. But the parent was savvy and recognized the school's address."

According to Diller, the whole project has been backed by the Education Construction Fund, a city entity that is used to find and utilize unused air rights of public school buildings - or the number of square feet, both horizontally and vertically that are used on the site. They buy up the air rights, and build a 40-story building in its place. The developer has to in turn agree to use the bottom floors for the school. For this specific project, the DOE has only just sent out a Request for Expressions of Interest (RFEI) to potential developers, said Diller.

In an email, David Pena, a representative from the Department of Education, explained that the DOE will continue to engage with the community on the project. The DOE has also maintained that the project, unless it was designated as a special "As of Right" project, would have to go through the Uniform Land Use Review Process (ULURP) just like any other city development, before it came to fruition.

"In the past four years, this construction process has developed four brand-new, state-of-the-art school facilities in Manhattan's Community School District 2 at no cost to taxpayers," said Pena. "For this project, there will be a two-year planning and engagement process if any of the responses are found to be worthwhile enough to advance to the project level. There is no reason to suggest that either DOE or ECF will not follow the same levels of engagement as in the past for any future ECF projects."

But despite their proclamations of good intentions, parents at P.S. 199 and 191 are still not convinced, especially parents like Gigi Galen Grobstein, who moved to the district specifically to have her daughter attend P.S. 199.

"I was horrified; I felt like we were blindsided," said Grobstein. "How can this benefit any of us? It will benefit the city because they can sell the rights of the building."

Grobstein, whose daughter is supposed to attend kindergarten at P.S. 199 in the fall, said that if the DOE does knock down their building, she will move out of the neighborhood, because she does not want her daughter to attend a temporary replacement.

Susan Stein, who lives in Lincoln Towers directly behind P.S. 199, and whose granddaughter attends the school, said that she is not surprised to hear that people will move out of the area if DOE goes through with their reconstruction plan. But, she said, the frustration goes beyond the school community.

"There's already a high rise being built on Amsterdam, and a nearby synagogue's building will rise 50 stories," said Stein. "This neighborhood can't take that many more people. The subway platform is dangerously overcrowded, and it's narrow too."

Stein said that she and the Lincoln Towers community plan on continuing to write letters to the DOE, and organizing petitions to keep P.S. 199 away from the wrecking ball.

But Olaiya Deen, a parent at P.S. 191 and member of Community Education Council 3, does not believe that the P.S. 199 community has anything to worry about.

"I think P.S. 191 is more likely to go, because we are a struggling school and P.S. 199 is a historically upper class school," said Deen. "I don't trust the DOE. They will say the want community input on paper, but they go right along and do what they want anyway."

Deen said that at the meeting with the DOE, they had already speculated Beacon High School as a temporary location for P.S. 191, if it were to be rebuilt. As a high school, however, Beacon would not have a playground or an auditorium for the students.

Regardless of which school the DOE decides to demolish, they have drawn up a plan in the RFEI that outlines what the new buildings would look like. The project is described as featuring "large residential units" and would require developers to build a 105,000 square foot school on the lower levels. At both the P.S. 191 and P.S. 199 sites, the new school should be capable of housing additional students. According to the speculative blueprints, part of the new school would be below ground on the same level as the building's parking garages.

"Who wants their children to go to school in a basement where there's no light?" said Susan Stein.
The next step is for the Department of Education to analyze all of the developers' bids, and issue a Request for Proposals (RFP). Mark Diller said that the process of developing the new site is excpected to begin by the summer.

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