By Julie Shapiro
A developer agreed Wednesday to immediately pay for laptops for two local schools, after Downtown Express inquiries.
Students at P.S. and I.S. 89 have been waiting since last fall for the laptops promised by Time Equities, Inc. as part of a deal with the city to develop 50 West St. In November, the City Council approved the sale of air rights to Time Equities, but nearly five months later, the deal still has not closed meaning that the laptops were nowhere to be found.
Wednesday morning, Francis Greenburger, chairperson and C.E.O. of Time Equities, issued a statement to Downtown Express saying he hoped the deal would close within several months, and Time Equities would not pay for the laptops until then.
But early Wednesday evening, Greenburger changed his tune, releasing a new statement.
“While the initial agreement was to fund community benefits upon the closing of the 50 West St. deal, Time Equities has today agreed to provide advanced funds in good faith to help P.S. and I.S. 89 expedite their new computer lab,” Greenburger said. “We hope the deal will close by the end of the month or shortly thereafter and are pleased that we can help P.S. and I.S. 89 in the meantime.”
City Councilmember Alan Gerson, who brokered the original deal between Time Equities and the city Economic Development Corp., had been pressuring both parties to expedite the closing and deliver the laptops.
“I am furious [about the delay],” Gerson said last week, prior to Time Equities’ commitment to fund the laptops. “It is inexcusable.”
Under the original deal, the city would sell 183,000 square feet of air rights to Time Equities for roughly $33 million, so Time Equities could build a 63-story hotel and condo tower at 50 West St. In return for allowing yet another tall luxury building Downtown, the community was supposed to receive laptops for P.S. and I.S. 89 and money for affordable housing.
Neither side will reveal what the sticking point has been in the past five months of negotiations.
“They claim it’s just lawyers setting up a complicated close,” said David Feiner, Gerson’s director of youth and education.
Janel Paterson, E.D.C. spokesperson, said she could not comment on ongoing negotiations.
The E.D.C. has told Gerson several times that the closing is just weeks away, only to extend the timeline still further, Feiner said.
The amenities schedule announced last November called for Time Equities to pay $2.5 million into a Lower Manhattan affordable housing fund when the deal closed and an additional $2.5 million once the condos received a certificate of occupancy. The city would also kick in an additional nearly $2 million for affordable housing.
The deal also required Time Equities to pay $440,000 for laptops and several years of tech support for P.S. and I.S. 89, an elementary school and a middle school in Battery Park City that share a building. The schools also shared a computer room, which held 36 computer workstations, easily accommodating even the school’s largest classes. The promise of laptops allowed P.S. 89 Principal Ronnie Najjar to close that computer room and convert it into a badly needed classroom for P.S. 89.
The school community applauded the plan when it was proposed in June 2007, but no one expected the laptops to take so long to arrive. In what was supposed to be a temporary measure, the school crammed a lab of 12 computers into a former locker room. That small space has been technology coordinator Barbara Kariya’s center of operation for the past eight months.
“It’s difficult to teach kids about computers when they can’t really use one, when they can’t touch it,” Kariya said last week, before Time Equities agreed to advance the money. “We’re waiting and waiting.”
Najjar, the P.S. 89 principal, said last week that the order for Mac laptops is ready to go as soon as she gets the green light from the city. Ellen Foote, principal of I.S. 89, did not return calls for comment.
“There are a lot of disappointed parents at I.S. 89,” said Tim Johnson, co-president of the school’s P.T.A., before hearing of the funding advance. “[We’re] very concerned that the deal may not come to fruition.”
Construction projects are getting delayed or cancelled all over the city because of the financial downturn and rising construction costs. Forest City Ratner, another developer, recently announced a one-year delay of the Beekman St. school, in the base of an apartment tower, because of difficulty getting financing.
In this climate, Johnson was having doubts that the 50 West St. project would go forward at all. He thinks P.S. and I.S. 89 should have waited to close the computer room until the deal with Time Equities was final and the laptops were on their way.
Johnson also questioned the practice of making deals with developers for community amenities, which often arrive late, if at all. “I never think the tradeoff is enough,” he said.
Julie Menin, chairperson of C.B. 1, said earlier this week that the only reason the community accepted the proposed Time Equities tower is because of the amenities that went along with it amenities that the community needs sooner rather than later.
“I don’t understand why there is this delay,” Menin said. “This is something that was promised…. We definitely need to hold their feet to the fire.”
For Kariya, the lack of computers provided an unwelcome challenge. She had planned to use the same computer-based curriculum she had taught for the past six years, but when September came she had to scramble to find something different to teach the fourth, fifth and sixth graders.
The sixth graders are working on a recycling project. Kariya is trying to incorporate Internet literacy into her lessons, “But mostly, we’ve just been trying to get the school to recycle paper,” she said. “They’re not getting instruction in computers, at all.”
Kariya is teaching the fifth graders about podcasts and audio recording, but with many students on each computer, it’s almost impossible. Her fourth-grade class was cancelled, because there seemed little point in teaching an introductory computer class without computers, Kariya said.
“It’s very difficult,” Kariya said, sighing. “It’s just a sad state of affairs.”
A parent of a fifth grader at P.S. 89 said his son wasn’t learning anything about computers. “They just watch,” said the father, who did not want to give his name. “Computer classes are very important to these kids.”
Kariya isn’t even crazy about the idea of laptops, but she’ll welcome them as an improvement over the current situation. The migrating lab will take time to set up and break down, and young children often have more trouble using laptops than desktops, she said.
“Laptops are the way of the future, I guess,” she said. “If that’s what we have, then that’s what we have.”
As time passed with no word on the deal’s closing, Gerson called on the city, particularly the Department of Education, to advance the money for the laptops.
Margie Feinberg, D.O.E. spokesperson, said she had not heard about the laptop agreement until recently and would have to know more before giving money.
“I don’t think it would be the wisest thing to do now that we have budget cuts,” she said.
Even before hearing of Time Equities’ recent commitment, Gerson was optimistic that the laptops would arrive soon.
“I am confident that the money is there,” he said. “We will get there.”