By Julie Shapiro
It’s official: The new Beekman St. school will open in 2010, not 2009.
Developer Bruce Ratner confessed the delay in a letter to Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver March 27.
“It’s no surprise,” said Paul Hovitz, of Community Board 1. “I’m no construction expert, but it really didn’t take a savvy person to know that they could not finish the project [by 2009].”
Ratner’s letter came more than a month after Silver inquired about the lack of progress on the Beekman St. site, which has been at a standstill since last fall. The school will sit in the base of a 76-story mixed-use tower, designed by Frank Gehry. Downtown Express first reported last September that Forest City Ratner was having trouble financing Gehry’s complicated design.
“When we initially conceived this project in 2005, the financial markets and economic environment were exceptionally strong,” Ratner wrote to Silver. “Today, unfortunately, the markets have shifted and the availability of capital has tightened. This tightening caused us to delay construction of Beekman.”
Ratner called the delay on the school “terribly frustrating,” but added, “We believe it is better to delay the opening than to risk opening the school prematurely.”
The new pre-K to 8 school will have 630 seats, which are badly needed in the community. As recently as several weeks ago, Ratner representatives were assuring C.B. 1 that the school would open on time, but they have refused to attend a public meeting for months.
The day after Ratner sent his letter, Forest City closed on $680 million in construction financing for the project, allaying fears that the project would not go forward at all. Community members had been particularly worried after the New York Times reported two weeks ago that almost all of Ratner’s $4 billion Gehry-designed Atlantic Yards project in Brooklyn could be delayed for years. Ratner also blamed the economic slowdown for that change of plans.
The $680 million will cover the complete construction costs for the Beekman project, said Joyce Baumgarten, a Ratner spokesperson.
“They can stop worrying,” she said of the community. “It looks like tahe dates we have now are fixed…. Now it’s on schedule.”
Silver said Wednesday that he was disappointed to hear that the school is delayed, but he is happy that that the project is a priority for Ratner. Silver pointed out that the school was originally scheduled to open in fall 2008, but it got pushed to 2009 after Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Schools Chancellor Joel Klein pulled the money for the school as part of their overall strategy to get Albany to allocate $6.5 billion in court-ordered education funds. The funding problem came to light in February 2006 and took two months to resolve.
Silver said that delay led to a chain reaction and by the time Ratner needed financing for the project, the tight credit market slowed things down further.
“[Bloomberg] was playing around with the school,” Silver said. “If that delay didn’t happen, [Ratner] would have been able to get private financing, and the school would have been open this September. Joel Klein chose to play games, and these are the consequences of it.”
The greatest impact of the Beekman delay will be on P.S. 234, Hovitz said. “[P.S.] 234 is busting at the seams,” he said. Though the Department of Education has not announced zoning for the new school, Hovitz and others expect that the school will admit East Side elementary children who now trek over to P.S. 234 in Tribeca.
At the beginning of this school year, P.S. 234 opened an annex with additional classrooms to combat overcrowding. The annex is already filled to capacity, and there is no space to create more classrooms, said Liat Silberman, P.T.A. president.
Many P.S. 234 parents are concerned that class sizes will grow in the next several years and the P.T.A. created an overcrowding committee to examine options, Silberman said. Meanwhile, she sees a lesson to take from the Beekman delay.
“Schools should not be combined with private development unless [the developer] can secure financing and the deadlines are real,” Silberman said. “The private developer has his own agenda, and that’s totally suitable for him, but it’s not suitable for a school.”
Julie Menin, chairperson of C.B. 1, said the delayed opening was disappointing, especially given the crunch for school seats Downtown. Still, she is looking on the bright side: With the Site 2B elementary school in Battery Park City and now the Beekman St. school both slated to open in 2010, Lower Manhattan is lucky.
“They will completely change the educational landscape of the district,” Menin said of the two schools. “The big picture is really very good.”
Menin and other community board members are meeting with Forest City representatives next week to discuss the school. Rebecca Skinner, chairperson of the Youth and Education Committee, is hoping to find a way to open the school in 2009, as promised.
“I never take anything as final,” Skinner said. “The goal is to do fact-finding, to ensure we look at all our options.” Skinner is also gathering information about school populations, to determine the impact of the delayed opening.
Ratner’s 76-story mixed-use tower, bounded by Spruce, William and Beekman Sts., will house 904 market-rate apartments, a 21,000-square-foot ambulatory care center for New York Downtown Hospital, 1,300 square feet of ground-floor retail space and belowground parking for 175 cars. The school will sit in the bottom five floors of the building.
Nearly $204 million of Ratner’s new funding comes from the Liberty Bond Program, representing that program’s final allocation from the city Housing Development Corporation. Ratner will use the money for the apartments and retail space. The Beekman Liberty Bonds generated about $6 million in fees, money the H.D.C. will devote to affordable housing.
Two weeks ago, before the school’s new opening date was officially announced, the Lower Manhattan Construction Command Center said Frank Gehry’s complicated design was behind the Beekman construction delays.
Usually, concrete buildings like the Beekman St. tower can rise one story every two to three days, said Josh Rosenbloom, director of city operations for the Construction Center. Construction workers build floor-plate molds once and then use them to pour concrete for each floor.
“But the way Gehry designed it, no two floor plates were the same,” Rosenbloom said at a Community Board 1 Quality of Life Committee meeting. That means that workers would have to build new molds for each floor, substantially drawing out the construction.
To cut the costs and lengthy schedule of this process, Ratner is simplifying the design, Rosenbloom said.
Asked if Ratner and Gehry have resolved the design debate, Rosenbloom replied that he did not know.
Baumgarten said Monday that the design would be unveiled in four to six weeks. She said the design is complete but she could not comment on it. Older versions show a wavy structure with an undulating facade.
As the site stands right now and has stood for nearly six months workers have poured the building’s foundation but need to complete the pile driving. The piles alone will take several months before any other work can proceed, Rosenbloom said.
Unlike the design for the rest of the tower, the design for the school is final, so “the beginning of the project is ready to go,” said Michael Belling, an L.M.C.C.C. consultant, two weeks ago at the same C.B. 1 meeting.
“[Ratner] will begin construction before they have an absolute final design,” Belling said, reassuring community members that at least the school portion of the project will move forward soon.
But, looking alarmed, several people then asked if children would be expected to go to school in the bottom of a tower still being built.
“The school wouldn’t open while [the building is] under construction,” Belling reassured them.