City blasts Townley over P.S. 234 rent flap
By Julie Shapiro
The Dept. of Education fired back at Manhattan Youth last week in the fight over classroom space for P.S. 234.
For the past two years, the D.O.E. has rented two classrooms for the overcrowded P.S. 234 in Manhattan Youth’s Downtown Community Center. The D.O.E.’s lease on the classrooms expires this year, and the city offered to pay $48 per square foot for a renewal, a small increase over the $45 per square foot D.O.E. currently pays, Townley said. But Townley wants the city to pay $150 per square foot, because that is how much Manhattan Youth would need to build out similar space nearby, he said.
The city balked at Townley’s request, and last Friday Jack Zarin-Rosenfeld, D.O.E. spokesperson, released a statement sharply critical of Townley:
“We have made Mr. Townley a top of the market offer, which is extremely fair given that there has not been one alteration to the space since the beginning of the lease,” Zarin-Rosenfeld said in an e-mail to Downtown Express. “Ultimately, the D.O.E. wants to pay this top of the market rate so we can ensure the space continues to be used by public school students. If the owner of the space would prefer to use the space for ‘fee-based programs’ in order to boost his personal margins, that is his unfortunate position.”
Townley called the D.O.E.’s statement “highly inaccurate.”
“I don’t have anything to say to that except that it’s wrong,” he said.
Manhattan Youth is a nonprofit, and although Townley founded the organization, he does not own it.
The city’s offer of $48 per square foot appears fair for raw office space: The average rent for office space below Chambers St. was about $40 per square foot in the fourth quarter of 2009, according to the Downtown Alliance. But Townley said the Manhattan Youth classrooms are not raw space — they are already built out with ventilation systems and bathrooms and meet the D.O.E.’s stringent requirements, so they are worth a lot more, he said.
Also, while Townley acknowledged that he had not made improvements to the two classrooms since the lease began, he said he spent about $35,000 beforehand to meet the city’s classroom space codes, and he spends about $15,000 a year on security and maintenance for the rooms.
The Dept. of Education did not contradict any of Townley’s numbers, including the $48 per square foot offer for the renewal.
Downtown Express incorrectly reported last week that the city had offered Townley $46 per square foot. Townley gave the slightly lower figure at a meeting two weeks ago, and the D.O.E. representative at the meeting did not dispute it. Downtown Express also overestimated Manhattan Youth’s annual rent take last week, because the D.O.E. does not use the 2,000 square feet of classroom space when school is not in session. The D.O.E. currently pays Manhattan Youth about $78,000 a year and is offering an increase to $83,500, Townley said. Townley is asking for about $260,000 a year, not the $300,000 reported last week.
P.S. 234, which is next-door to the Downtown Community Center in Tribeca, currently uses the two rented classrooms for art and science. If the city and Manhattan Youth do not reach an agreement, the art and science teachers will wheel carts into the school’s regular classrooms to teach those subjects.
Without P.S. 234 using the community center classrooms, Townley said he might convert one into a technology lab and the other into active recreation space for young children. Townley said he could easily make up the $83,500 the city is offering by running other programs in the two rooms. The money could come from a variety of sources including fees paid by the participants or from government contracts, Townley said.
Still, Townley’s first choice is to reach a deal with the city that would allow P.S. 234 to keep the space. Since negotiations have broken down, Townley wants an independent arbiter with a real-estate background to hear the case. But the city is not interested.
“We feel there’s no need for an independent arbiter when we’re making a top of the market offer for the space,” Zarin-Rosenfeld said.