Volume 19 Issue 36 | January 19 - 25, 2007

Diagram shows the current plans for the main floor of the Battery Park City Community Center. An annex for P.S. 89 may be included in the center.

Push for 2 school sites in B.P.C.

By Skye H. McFarlane

Dozens of hands shot into the air of the half-darkened auditorium at P.S. 89, attached to dozens of parents whose concerned faces and anxious voices offered proof that another battle against school overcrowding Downtown had begun.

The hands were an overwhelming response to a question posed by Community Board 1 members at a town hall meeting last Wednesday: Did parents support the idea of a school annex for P.S. 89 in the to-be-built Battery Park City Community Center next door?

Yes, the hands said.

Even if that means redesigning the Community Center and carving out 10,000 square feet exclusively for the students? And possibly angering other community groups?

Downtown Express photo by Elisabeth Robert

The residential buildings and the B.P.C. Community Center will be built next to the ballfields.

Yes, the hands said. Some of the parents went even further, calling on the board to do away with the Community Center altogether and turn the entire 50,000-square-foot space, which will be located in the bottom floors of two Milstein Properties residential towers along North End Ave between Warren and Murray Sts, into a school.

C.B. 1 member and P.S. 89 parent Tom Goodkind said he wasn’t surprised.

“People will do anything for their children,” he said. “We’re here tonight because the Department of Education has not fulfilled its responsibility to the community. Everything that’s been built so far in Community Board 1 has been built by private efforts.”

In response to a growing population, Downtown residents over the years have fought for and secured school spaces such as P.S./I.S. 89, Millennium High School and the upcoming P.S. 234 annex and Beekman St. school — all of which have been funded or built by outside agencies or private developers. Now, as a slew of residential towers rise toward completion and a flood of new students squeezes P.S. 89’s classrooms to the limit, Downtown parents and their community board allies are once again on the march for new school space.

Their top targets are Site 2B in the southern part of Battery Park City (currently slated to become a women’s history museum) and the Community Center annex, which could open as soon as 2009 or 2010 if the idea goes forward.

Proponents of the annex idea point to the fact that the Community Center was designed for public use and that it sits just across the street from the existing school. Because there is already one community center in the neighborhood at Stuyvesant High School and two others on the way (a Manhattan Youth center on Warren St. and a 92nd St. Y on Hudson St.), many community members said they would gladly sacrifice a chunk of the Battery Park City center for the neighborhood’s children.

“Absolutely the most important thing is our children,” said Courtney Brennan, whose older son is a member of the 34-student fourth grade class at P.S. 89, the third-most crowded class of its kind in the city. “If it takes scrapping those plans [for the community center] and starting from scratch, then do it.”

Proponents also said that the prevalence of fitness centers and even pools in many of Battery Park City’s apartment buildings further diminishes the need for those amenities in the center. After the town hall meeting, Julie Menin, C.B. 1’s chairperson, was overheard voicing her support for shrinking one of the Community Center’s pools to make way for the annex.

Currently, the center is designed with two swimming pools totaling 6,300 square feet, a 6,300-square-foot gymnasium, a 3,200-square-foot fitness center and 12 spaces designed as classrooms or lounges. Although parents initially suggested temporarily renting out classrooms in the center for the school, the Department of Education told C.B. 1 representatives that that would be impossible.

In order for the D.O.E. to approve of and run the annex, the space would have to be physically separate from the rest of the center and have its own entrance. The space would have to house full grades, like the pre-k and kindergarten-dedicated annex that will open at P.S. 234 next fall, because education officials do not want children crossing back and forth over Warren St. to get to class. The P.S. 89 annex could, however, open its classrooms up to community groups during non-school hours, just as Stuyvesant does.

But some board members, including Community Center Task Force leaders Jeff Galloway and Anthony Notaro, have been wary of the current annex idea. While they support the concept of an annex, they fear that it may not be feasible to redesign the center to accommodate the D.O.E.’s needs, especially since Milstein hopes to break ground on the construction soon. They also worry that dedicating 20 percent of the space to younger schoolchildren might shortchange other neighborhood populations such as teens and seniors. With these concerns in mind, the board plans to explore other annex possibilities, such as converting P.S./I.S. 89’s schoolyard or apartment spaces above the school into classrooms.

“Let’s steal from ourselves only when we have to steal from ourselves,” Galloway said at the board’s monthly meeting on Tuesday.

Still other board members, and some parents, expressed concern that fighting for an annex might hinder the community’s battle for a new school between First and Second Place at Site 2B, but Menin repeatedly insisted that this was not the case.

“The first thing I asked the Department of Education was whether these sites were mutually exclusive and I was assured that they were not,” Menin said Tuesday. “The women’s museum is our number one priority, but to just look at one site and not pursue as many seats as possible would, in my mind, be foolish.”

Despite the trepidations, the board voted unanimously to support the annex in principle and to have the board’s Community Center Task Force examine the feasibility of putting said annex in the Community Center. The task force has worked closely with the Battery Park City Authority, which will control the center, to design the space. Publicly, the authority has only said that it is open to continuing discussions about the annex. But several board members said that privately, the authority supports a school in the center, provided that the concerns of the community and the D.O.E. can be addressed.

Board members therefore urged parents and other community groups to attend upcoming task force meetings — starting in February — and make their needs heard.

“We’re going to have to work very hard at this and we need your help. Please come to meetings,” Goodkind told the parents at last week’s town hall. Menin issued a similar request to the public at this week’s C.B. 1 meeting.

As for a new school at Site 2B, Menin and Youth Committee chairperson Paul Hovitz have been toiling to make that dream, first proposed by board member Barry Skolnick a year ago, into a reality.

A School Construction Authority representative told the Youth Committee on Jan. 4 that the first community to find a viable site in District 2 is likely to get one of the two remaining schools in the S.C.A.’s capital budget for the district. This information led Hovitz and Menin to redouble their efforts, meeting with the mayor’s office and enlisting the help of Councilmember Alan Gerson and state Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver to pressure the city and state governments to dispense with the women’s museum plan and designate the building as a school. Menin told the board she hoped to announce some “good news” very soon.

Silver staffer and former C.B. 1 district manager Paul Goldstein was even more optimistic about Site 2B, saying, “We think the stars are sort of aligned to make this happen.”

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