EXCLUSIVE: THE CITY IS CONSIDERING PLANS TO DEMOLISH PS 199 AND PS 191 (UPDATED WITH CITY RESPONSE)

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-8DDD-F57F35A8FC37/139111/ECF_2013_RFEI.pdf. 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.”

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Stringer – PS 199 and 191 by

NEWS, SCHOOLS | 27 comments | permalink
    1. David T says:

      Here’s a good idea. Let’s tear down schools, build new apartment buildings full of children, and have no place for them to go to school.

      SERIOUSLY???????

    2. Stefan Koster says:

      I attended the recent CEC meeting where this issue was discussed. The most important pieces of information I walked away with: a) Jamie Smarr from the NYC Educational Construction Fund made it very clear that this is a large-scale development and it will go through the ULURP process. b) The NYCECF is at this stage trying to engage the community to receive input from a vast group of local stakeholders and this process is expected to take about 2 years; nothing has been decided and this is the beginning of such public process. c) Based in large part on community feedback the feasibility of these construction ideas will be determined (side note: it was clearly stated that if any school were to be moved during construction of new school space this could only happen within the existing zone of that school). d) Of the three locations that are being discussed only one will be built, if at all.

      I don’t think I was the only one that was impressed by Jamie Smarr’s presentation. But he seems to be leaving his position at the NYCECF within weeks. Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer warned that the process required much more transparency. He is right, of course, but I assume his opposition would be less severe, if the NYCECF and the SCA confirm in writing that ULURP will be the foundation and guiding principle of any activity moving forward. City Council Member Gale Brewer also rightfully reminded the audience that there are a couple of UWS parochial schools rumored to close soon. These could offer much needed school space relief, if DOE were to buy the properties.

      I personally am not alarmed by the fact that developers were asked to submit initial plans. From Jamie’s presentation and knowledge of existing school zones it is obvious that there are many, many obstacles to overcome before anything ever gets built. But as a parent with a child going through the public school process on the UWS right now, it is apparent that uncommon ideas as to how to create modern schools that can house children for the next 50 to 60 years need to be brought to the table. The existing schools on the UWS are either “landmark” old or just plain old and run down. The new school shell which is being developed in the Riverside Center complex is much needed, but more school space is required if one takes into account that the lure of living on the UWS won’t decrease anytime soon. New ideas for the future development of school space should be on the table.

    3. denton says:

      Wow, I’m usually pretty pro-development, but this will certainly be an interesting experiment in how much density can be supported by a neighborhood.

    4. denton says:

      I get that the city needs new schools all over. The ‘landmark’ schools that exist were built by the city. It seems that the city no longer trusts itself to build its own schools. Maybe the whole SCA should resign and replace itself with people who could actually build a school. I mean, would it really be so hard to just knock down PS199 and replace it with say a six story school? Without having to turn over the whole process to a developer who will put up a huge apt building? Seems to me it would just be simpler and faster to build a new school, if that’s what we need.

      Instead, we get the worst of both worlds. We still keep the whole government bureaucracy employed (that apparently is not capable of building something as simple as a school), while entrusting them to supervise a developer to build it for us.

      I wonder how some of these other partnerships have worked out, the school in the base of 8 Spruce Street comes to mind, and Ratner is one of the best developers in NYC, imo.

    5. WestSider says:

      I would like to comment on Gale Brewer’s comment in article:

      I’m not sure I want another tall building on the West Side,” Brewer said. “I don’t want shadows over Amsterdam houses [near P.S. 191].”

      This woman’s far left wing agenda must be stopped. She cannot even fake it for the media. So is she saying that she doesnt care about shadows on lincoln towers or the browstones and smaller buildings that line west 70th street near PS 199? Honestly her barely hiddent contempt for UWS who are net contributors via taxes and work is ridiculous. She really only works for those who already receive government subisidies. See her law that outlawed hostels, her hijacking of the amazingly designed pyramid building to force subsidized housing (making it more expensive fro everyone else).

      Please vote her out of office.

    6. Faith Steinberg says:

      In this day and age of climate change, with the threat of blackouts, water shortages, pollution, the last thing we need is more luxury housing. This plan is part of Bloomberg’s promise to supply housing for a million more people and this plan may be a goodbye souvenir of his legacy–destroying our quality of life with the presence of construction sites forcing us to walk zig zag along our streets–sometimes two constructions sites closeby at the same time. When these are finished new construction sites appear. Our depleted affordable housing (vacancy decontrol) has made the minimum affordable housing he has built, a wash. What the densely populated Upper West Side doesn’t need is more construction of luxury housing. I will be so happy to see the back of this mayor.

    7. Harriet says:

      This is another incidence of there being no perfect solution, but we must think far down the road. My kids are grown and out of school, but I think that if I were a young parent, I would want the opportunity to send me kid to an updated modern school. With all the budget cuts in the new way of thinking about municipal government, this seems a feasible way to get the new schools we need. Do I want “shadows” over the street? Probably not in an ideal world, but if the choice is shadows and good schools or sunlight and falling down buildings, I’ll take the former. Please please please don’t always assume that the way things are now is the best way they can be. Increased density is inevitable on the UWS and most of Manhattan. Let’s at least get something good for the community in exchange.

    8. Bob Leonard says:

      We should really think about phasing out the NYCHA buildings along Amsterdam. They’re low rise, well below average density for the area and probably need all kinds of repairs. Replace them with modern tower and would include apartments for low-income plus options open space and schools.

      • Another Upper West Sider says:

        I would suggest retail uses on the ground floor of the Amsterdam Houses on West End Avenue, to integrate Amsterdam Houses into the street grid and bring in additional revenue to maintain the housing.

      • Cato says:

        AND they have all those icky *poor* people living in them! Can’t we just send them to some big space out west — geez, after all, it worked so well with those darned Indians more than a century ago, didn’t it?

        I mean, really, who *needs* them — it’s not like they drive Mercedeses or Lexuses or anything. Tear those hovels down and let’s get some more Bankers on this turf!

    9. eve cusson says:

      look for more parting shots before the current mayor leaves office – heck, they’re only kids – will be years before they are income-producing -

    10. Mark says:

      PS 191 is obsolete. I am sure that any redevelopment of the site will include a bigger and better school to accommodate the larger population. Since Lincoln Towers already sits on land previously condemned from prior working classes, maybe they also deserve a “shadow” in their apartments!

    11. rachel says:

      As a former parent at PS 199, I think the school is deserving of more space given the fact that both 199 and in part 191 have absorbed the population from the Trump buildings on RSB, 200 WEA and the like. Let us not forget that Gale Brewer AND Scott Stringer were both in office during the time these buildings went up and never helped the community fight for extra schools to be built. The only time I ever saw either politician near either school was when they were running for office. Careful who you ask to lead the charge, Upper West Siders…….

    12. Pedestrian says:

      So nice of the Mayor to give the Upper Westside a parting gift of more high rises for millionaires even at the cost of school buildings, neighborhood education, neighborhood character and infrastructure. Well, he has so little time to hand out more goodies to his developer friends that demolishing schools to make way is the least he can do.

      How many tax abatements will these high rises get? Nothing better than tax abatements for millionaires no wait its billionaires now who get “sorely needed” incentives to develop the Upper West Side. No help for local small businesses but millions for developers. The Mayor has never listened to the residents of the Upper West Side why should he start now.

      It is time to stop the madness.

      • westsideMoms says:

        Oh Pedestrian, I presume you did not take economics 101 and learn the law of supply and demand.
        The reason housing is expensive on the UWS is that there is huge demand. Beleave me, any builder would be happy not to take tax subsidies, but it is so expensive to build here. So typical of no nothings to blame developers. Ask yourself who built your home or every other unit in this town, yup real estate developers.
        Sure some are A holes, but to demonize them which so many do is ridiculous. and your classism against those who can afford to pay their own way is also dispicable.

        The 60s are over honey.

      • westSider says:

        Gale is that you hiding behind a faux name?

        Surely the Mayor listened to you when you sniffed you didnt want backpackers sharing the sidewalk with you and that the SROs should be outlawed as hotels. (BTW dont you yourself own a bed and breakfast? ) and now we have drug addicts and welfare queens running west 95th all paid for by the another city agency – but really paid for by us the taxpayes.

        thanks Gale!

      • westSider says:

        Gale Brewer is that you hiding behind a faux name?

        Surely the Mayor listened to you when you sniffed you didnt want backpackers sharing the sidewalk with you and that the SROs should be outlawed as hotels. (BTW dont you yourself own a bed and breakfast? ) and now we have drug addicts and welfare queens running west 95th all paid for by the another city agency – but really paid for by us the taxpayes.

        thanks Gale!

    13. Jerry says:

      Stock up on Vitamin D because less and less of it will be
      coming from the sun.

    14. Svelte says:

      Everyone should read Stefan Koster’s comment,seems he is very informed.
      As a Community activist I have seen the area ravaged by overbuilding,illegal food vending and “wild-ing”.How many times last year were there gunshots outside McDonalds?
      Anyone who has been here the last ten years I applaud you for building a wonderful neighborhood.Unfortunately everyone wants a piece of it now.These people are not builders but takers and now there are too many of them.
      I have gone to many public meetings over the past two years and found it very disturbing how unaware the Committee Members,Police and Officials are on the illegal encroachment,muggings and quality of life issues.
      I’m wondering why the builders didn’t think to build over Martin Luther King High School?There is a lot more space and it wouldn’t disturb this Community.
      The writing is on the wall.To the hard working people who transformed this neighborhood “Thank You.”Do not fight this issue.I would suggest that for the next two years that you use your time, money,blood,sweat and effort to re-locate to a Community that would appreciate your skills.As an owner,I will either rent or sell and choose a Community that cares about it’s residents.

    15. olaiya deen says:

      CB7 has known about this for sometime as it has been lobbbying CEC3 to take a look at Beacon to see what kind of school it will support. Beacon mov es in 2015 to a knew space. The rep. from DOE said in a CEC meeting this month that the DOE plan was/is to use Beacon as a relocation site.
      Developers have to present to the CB their intentions

    16. A.Ames says:

      What? Just what we need: A TALLER building between the two chunks of already hideous hi-rises on either side of WEA between 66th and 69th! Why not just build this across the Hudson, which has already been destroyed by New Jersey’s rabid building-frenzy.

    17. Any agency that was founded during Robert Moses’ time and deployed now for development that benefits the few over the many–especially if the many include those who are poor or middle income–and lacking public oversight pre-ULURP is suspect. IMO.

    18. Tal F says:

      This is a great idea. The rent is too high on the UWS, we need more development!!! If you are concerned about shadows, then live somewhere else. The Lincoln Towers already cast much larger shadows than any building built on such a small lot could possibly cast. Sure, we need more schools, too, but this plan includes building a new, larger school. If anything, we should be arguing about how big the new school should be, not opposing the project altogether. If we did enough of these all over NYC, we wouldn’t need “low income housing” as rents would come down on their own!