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A new elementary school is finally coming to Downtown’s booming Financial District, but locals are already asking if it will be enough.
The city’s School Construction Authority announced Thursday that it has reached a deal to open a long-promised, 476-seat school at 77 Greenwich St., the site of the old Syms discount clothing store that closed in 2011.
“This is great news and a wonderful way to start off 2016,” said Catherine McVay Hughes, chairwoman of Community Board 1, which has been pushing for more school seats Downtown for years alongside local parents and elected officials.
“It’s wonderful that it is finally being realized,” Hughes said. “Having a public elementary school in the Financial District, which is the fastest growing area [of Downtown], is particularly important, where the need is so great.”
The Greenwich St. school, which will have an entrance on Trinity Pl., will be included within the new mixed-use development planned for the block between Rector and Edgar Sts., south of the World Trade Center.
No date has been set for when the school will open — or even when construction will begin — but the plan for the school is expected to be finalized by this summer, according to a press release from the S.C.A.
The overall development will rise about 500 feet and include retail as well as residential space, according to a spokeswoman for the site’s owner, Trinity Place Holdings — the new, real estate-focused incarnation of the bankrupt former Syms Corporation.
Previous reports online have put the development at 80 stories and topping 1,000 feet, but the spokeswoman told Downtown Express that those numbers and previously published renderings of the project were inaccurate. The company plans to release clarifying information about the project in the coming week.
As part of the development, Trinity Place Holdings will also seek permission from the city’s Landmarks Preservation Commission to make changes to the Robert and Anne Dickey House right next to the store. The S.C.A. said that the landmarked building could form part of the elementary school.
No matter what it will look like, the announcement ends a years-long search for a suitable school site. The new elementary school was first budgeted in the city’s five-year capital plan in November 2013.
“We’re very happy to hear the news, it was a nice surprise,” said Wendy Chapman, a member of CB1’s Youth and Education Committee and co-founder of the advocacy group Build Schools Now. “But of course we have concerns,” she added. “We have seen how dire the population growth is, we’re going to hope that the Dept. of Ed. and the S.C.A. give the community input as to what the final outcome of this school is.”
Youth and Education Committee co-chairman of Paul Hovitz pointed out that in the earlier struggle to get Spruce Street School into the Gehry Building, the committee learned that finally securing a site is not the end of the battle for school seats.
“The mistake we made was being so happy we were getting the school there that we didn’t press for more floors and to have more than two classes in a grade — because two classes on a grade was so small,” he said. “By the time we realized, everything was set in stone.”
Chapman said she would like to see the school expanded to include a middle school, spanning grades K-8, or at least increase the number of seats — which she emphasized is always cheaper than building another school in the future.
“More is always better,” she said. “My feeling is get the whole thing, if you’re going to build out a space. The needs will continue — they’re not going to slow down. Downtown is only going to become more popular.”
Hovitz pointed out that, at one time, the community was promised 1,000 more school seats, so a 476-seat school at the Syms site would fulfill less than half of that commitment.
Another issue that remains unresolved is whether — and where — the new school will “incubate” — the Dept. of Education’s term for setting up a new school in an alternate location while its permanent site is under construction.
Peck Slip School, Downtown’s most recent educational addition, spent three years incubating at the Dept. of Education’s headquarters at Tweed Courthouse on Chambers St. before it opened last fall at 1 Peck Slip. Classes for PS 276 and Spruce Street School were also taught there before construction on their permanent facilities was finished.
But a pre-K center moved into the Tweed classrooms last September, so it’s unclear whether there will be space available to incubate the Greenwich St. school before its building in is complete — whenever that might be.
The Dept. of Education did not respond to questions about incubation plans.
Last month, Borough President Gale Brewer and Councilmember Margaret Chin announced that that they would team up with other elected officials and community leaders to continue the work of the School Overcrowding Task Force set up by former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, after the fate of the panel was thrown into question by his conviction on federal corruption charges.
The first meeting of the reconfigured task force will be Feb. 5, and Hovitz said one of its top priorities going forward will be to push the Dept. of Education to improve the population-growth models it uses to predict future needs, which he said has consistently underestimated the demand for school seats Downtown.
“The first thing on the agenda at the first meeting of the Overcrowding Task Force is going to be the community board’s population report … [that] indicates much greater population growth than the Dept. of Ed has been predicting,” Hovitz said. “They really need to change their method.”
Based on CB1’s latest population report, Lower Manhattan can expect a 10 percent population increase over the next year.
— YANNIC RACK and DUSICA SUE MALESEVIC