In somewhat shocking news, we have learned that the city has solicited and received proposals from developers to demolish PS 199 on West 70th Street and PS 191 on West 61st Street and build luxury towers on their sites. PS 199, an elementary school, is one of the most highly regarded and popular elementary schools in the entire city, and the building was designed by renowned architect Edward Durell Stone. Both schools have also had millions of dollars worth of renovations in recent years, which would be reduced to rubble.
The city would demolish the schools in order to allow developers to build large luxury apartment towers with new schools in them. The schools could be demolished as soon as 2015, according to a mother of students at PS 199 who attended a PTA meeting about the plans last week. Parents and school officials apparently were not briefed on the plans, which are already quite far along, until recently. The city clearly expects opposition to the plans (more on that below), and parents look like they might fight.
Update: The Department of Education has responded to this article, and we’ve pasted the full response near the bottom of the article. (In the response, the city says it will only move forward if it considers the developer’s proposals worthwhile, so we have tweaked the headline to say the city is “considering plans to demolish” the schools, instead of “planning to demolish”). We have asked the city to send us the developers’ proposals but have not yet received them.
One parent we talked to was amazed that the city has already received proposals and yet parents weren’t notified.
“It’s just surprising that we weren’t made aware of it when the RFP went out,” said Mindy, a parent of two children at PS 199 who went to a PTA meeting last week about the issue. The PTA apparently found out about it last Saturday. “It’s one thing to not involve us first thing. The proposals already came back. They’ve been out there at least six months.”
The city got 24 proposals to build on the sites of three current schools (along with the two schools on the Upper West Side, the city also plans to redevelop the school at 321 East 96th Street), Mindy told us.
Councilwoman Gale Brewer also told us she’s concerned about the lack of public input.
“My opinion is that these two projects need a great deal of sunshine and thought. So far, there has been very little from the Department of Education. Instead of simply announcing to the community that it wants to tear down our schools and rebuild them inside high rises, in order to earn revenue for schools city-wide, and without regard to the loss of light and air and increased density in our neighborhood, DOE should sit down with the CEC and CB7 and the elected officials to discuss the impact of its proposal. At this point, there are many more questions than answers, and no decision should be made until all of the facts and impacts have been considered.”
We inquired with the Department of Education about the details of the plan and why parents were not notified earlier, but they were not immediately able to comment (we asked on a Sunday in the midst of a three-day weekend, so it makes sense that they couldn’t come up with immediate answers). Public schools are on vacation, so we may not get full details for a few days.
What would happen to the students during demolition and development is still unclear — city plans for the sites simply indicate that the schools would be “relocated” during demolition and construction, but it doesn’t say where.
“The Educational Construction Fund has secured a relocation site in order that the schools do not have to remain in operation on the site during construction. However, developers are encouraged to include potential relocation alternatives under their control as part of their bid,” according to an information booklet sent to potential developers. Later in the proposal, the site the ECF is considering is called a “potential relocation site.”
There are 850 students at PS 199, and about 550 at PS 191, which would make relocating students together exceptionally difficult. The uncertainty is unsettling to parents who have kids in the schools, to say the least.
“No one wants to do it unless there’s a viable option for moving the school,” Mindy said.
Mindy, who lives in Lincoln Towers (the middle-class development where PS 199 sits), also says that the new building, along with numerous other construction projects soon to be built, will make the area a much darker place.
“If they’re going to put a 45 story building right there, we are not going to have any views. It’s going to be dark. there’s gonna be crazy construction. There are already two huge buildings being built, and now they’re going to add another one.”
What’s more, the developer would not have to go through a review process to get this done — in fact, parents and neighbors of the proposed developments may have no say in the decision whatsoever. The plans are already pretty far along, although the exact timeline is unclear: Borough President Scott Stringer says that the city has already received developers’ proposals to build on the sites.
The program to redevelop the sites is overseen by a city agency called the Educational Construction Fund that leases parcels of land owned by the Department of Education to developers with the idea that they’ll rebuild the sites with luxury apartments and new schools on the ground floor. The ECF was created in 1967 but has been dormant for decades before recently being revived by the Bloomberg administration. Bloomberg has been making a big push to build private developments on public land to raise money for the city; the city is also planning to offer public land to developers in the midst of housing projects.
In short, developers want the air rights over the schools, which allow them to build large towers, and are willing to build the schools as a tradeoff. The development is financed by tax-exempt bonds that are then paid off by lease payments and other proceeds. The idea is that the city gets new schools funded by private money — but the bonds are backed in part by public funds, so if the projects fall through taxpayers are on the hook.
(One other curious aspect: the ECF would lease the school to the city for 40 years, but lease the site to the developer for 99 years. It’s not clear what would happen to the school after 40 years.)
A glossy “request for expressions of interest” from CBRE, a real estate firm that the city worked with to attract developers, says the Upper West is “starved for luxury residential units” and that taking advantage of this opportunity would allow a developer to get a sweet deal on city-owned land.
One reason the deal is sweet for developers is that the proposals would not need to go through the city’s “ULURP” process, a review process usually used for large-scale developments that allow the public and various city agencies and elected officials to weigh in. In the request for expressions of interest the ECF points to the lack of public review as a big benefit for the developers:
“uLurP would not be necessary for transfer of title between the City of New york and ECF or to lease the school portion to the City or Department of Education. This is an important element of the ECF program which significantly benefits developers as it makes an ‘As-of-right’ project feasible. Developers may pursue a Special Permit option at each site which would require public review.”
In a letter to Schools Chancellor Dennis Walcott, ECF and School Construction Authority officials, Borough President Stringer wrote that that arrangement “would disrupt the education of thousands of children, it would also place an excessive burden on families who moved intentionally within the confines of the two schools’ zones so their children could attend a highly-ranked public school.” Stringer also noted that the schools the ECF would demolish have spent almost $21 million on upgrades in recent years. We’ve included Stringer’s full letter at the bottom of this post.
The city is apparently aware that demolishing PS 199 could be controversial, in part because of its architect. The request to developers says:
“Prospective respondents should be aware that the PS 199 building was designed by Edward Durell Stone. As a result, respondents should be aware of the significance of the building and that there may be opposition to the project and demolition of the school.”
PS 191, also known as the Museum Magnet School, is not a top-performer like PS 199, but it’s become known for holding lots of field trips and exposing students to all sorts of exciting out-of-classroom experiences. It also has a relatively new playground. As InsideSchools notes:
“PS 191 has long served mostly poor black and Hispanic children, many of whom live in housing projects across the street. In the past, middle class parents who lived in the PS 191 attendance zone would often send their children to private school or get special permission, called a variance, to enroll them in the mostly-white PS 199 a few blocks away. That dynamic is changing, however. PS 199 is very overcrowded has hasn’t taken out-of-zone children for a number of years, and the Department of Education recently reduced the size of the PS 199 zone and assigned more children to PS 191. Moreover, new construction of luxury high-rise housing has brought more prosperous families to the school’s zone.”
The Upper West Side certainly needs new schools: multiple local schools are overcrowded and there hasn’t been a new public school built in the neighborhood in more than 30 years. A school is currently under construction in the Riverside Center project around 61st Street off of West End Avenue. It is expected to open in 2015. (PS 191 is only about a block from there, which would make it strange for the city to build another brand-new school so close to one that is opening soon.)
But the plans the city is now undertaking have raised all sorts of questions that the city has so far not answered for parents and school officials. We’ll check in with the Department of Education again after President’s Day, and see if they can shed any more light on the issue. If you are a parent at either of these schools, please contact us at info at westsiderag dot com with your thoughts, or anything you’re hearing. And please let us know what you think in the comments section below.
Department of Education Statement: A department spokesman responded to this article with the statement below.
“A Request for Expressions of Interest (RFEI) has been undertaken by the New York City Educational Construction Fund (ECF), which in the past four years developed four brand-new, state-of-the-art school facilities in Manhattan’s Community School District 2 comprising approximately 3,200 new school seats and $215 million of school construction at no cost to taxpayers. We certainly believe that ECF projects represent a smarter and more efficient type of school project and we are proud to have re-introduced ECF as a way to deliver school seats in New York City.
As the RFEI describes, there will be a two-year planning and engagement process if any of the responses are found to be worthwhile enough to advance to the project level. As the school and parent communities of MS 114, PS 59 and Art & Design HS will attest, there was extensive planning and preparation before and during these completed projects. As such, there is no reason to suggest that either DOE or ECF will not follow the same levels of engagement for any future ECF projects.
The only procurement document we have issued in connection with these school sites is an RFEI: http://schools.nyc.gov/NR/
rdonlyres/DC1B470A-5B13-4F6E-. We used an RFEI to solicit ideas from the development community from each of these sites but this does not obligate us to take any other action if we find that none of the responses are worth advancing to the development stage. Given the success we have had using ECF to create school seats in Community School District 2, we anticipate that we will be able to bring this successful model to other high density zoning areas of the City.” 8DDD-F57F35A8FC37/139111/ECF_ 2013_RFEI.pdf
To stay up to date with Upper West Side news and events, sign up for our email newsletter.