By Maria Dering
PS 191 and PS 199 parents and neighbors voiced their opinions at a meeting Monday about the Department of Education’s plans to consider tearing down the schools so a developer can build high-rises with new schools inside of them. No one from the Department of Education showed up to the meeting despite being invited. The information vacuum has been filled with questions and anxiety.
At the heart of the issue is a Request for Expressions of Interest issued by an Education Department agency that offers up three schools, including PS 191 (61st/Amsterdam) and 199 (70th/West End Avenue), to developers as “prime development sites.”
The Executive Summary of the RFEI states: “The three sites are truly special opportunities as they present sizable developments within submarkets having limited available land for any substantial development, and are located within neighborhoods exhibiting exceptionally strong residential market fundamentals. … Prospective respondents are invited to bid on one, two, or all three sites.” We broke the story and explained the issue in detail here.
“We feel in the dark about the potentially game changing situation at P.S. 191 and 199,” said Noah Gotbaum, co-chair of the CEC3 Overcrowding Committee. “We have not had adequate response to our questions.” According to an April 25 letter from the DOE distributed at the May 13 meeting, “ … no decisions have been made on any sites — we are addressing whether there is interest and ability to build at these locations.” Since no representatives of DOE attended the meeting, Gotbaum will take questions back to the department. CEC3 will also ask for discussion and comment on the following issues, among others:
1. Before the RFEI was released, there was no educational impact statement or notice to schools and parents. Developers were notified first.
2. In terms of process, there is no mention of an RFP (a Request for Proposals, which would let developers send out final proposals for the sites). Would there be opportunity for public comment? At present, there is no clear indication that the DOE would issue an RFP.
3. The issue of “movement of schools” would be left to developers rather than parents or the community. Current school buildings must be demolished and students moved to other locations temporarily. Would students be kept in their current catchment areas?
Mark Diller, Chair of Community Board 7, said the Community Board would like the community “to have robust input before an RFP is issued. The community needs to shape what the project looks like, and must have input before the ULURP process begins.” Diller then answered several questions from the floor about the RFEI, whether the land under P.S. 191 has been sold (unknown), and whether P.S. 199 has applied for Landmark status. (Council Member Gale Brewer wrote to the Landmarks Preservation Commission on April 8.)
The Manhattan Borough President’s Office has asked the DOE to identify which community would be affected by possible redevelopment. They would like to work with a single community rather than trying to work with three. However, the Borough President has not taken a position on which school site should be chosen.
Several other elected officials, including Linda Rosenthal (Assemblymember 67th District) and District 6 Council Member Gale A. Brewer have also voiced their concerns about the RFEI, community input, and decision making. In a brief appearance, Council Member Brewer stated, “No way should 191 be anything other than the current building,” which met with loud applause. Brewer would also like to see the environmental issues at P.S. 199 addressed, and is very concerned about having “another tall building” in the neighborhood.
Following comments from civic leaders, Gotbaum turned to comments from attendees.
Comment #1: David Saphier, leaderWebmaster, www.199demolition.com
He is also working with P.S. 191 and wants what is right for the school and the community. There have been no questions about what the community wants; no educational impact studies have been done.
The proposed schools won’t accommodate many more students than are already in schools on the current sites. He doesn’t know what will be accomplished. Only the developers benefit, through tax breaks and bond issues.
Comment #2: Parent, P.S. 199
Has two children now in P.S. 199. Not against redevelopment although there are many problems with the RFEI. She sees redevelopment as a possible opportunity to get grades K-8 in the space. Cited the “overwhelming need for seats. If we can achieve this in partnership with a private developer, that is not an evil.”
At this point, Councilwoman Brewer arrived and made the following comment: “No way should 191 be anything other than the current building,” which was met with loud applause from the 100+ people in the audience. Brewer would also like to see the environmental issues at P.S. 199 addressed, and is very concerned about having “another tall building” in the neighborhood.
Public comments resumed.
Comment #3: Parent and PTA co-president, P.S. 199
The RFEI process is terrible and flawed. She wants community input and stressed the dire need for more seats in school. In June, she hopes to see more ideas. “We will weigh in once we have a sense of what is out there.”
Several other audience members, mostly parents, commented on the conflicting information given by various offices and wondered how to solve the problems facing the schools and their communities. One parent questioned how the DOE would accommodate new residents in new developments, when those residents have more children than the developers anticipated.
Laurie Frey, a member of CEC3, made a series of final comments, ending with this: “If you are not in favor of tearing down your stand-alone school … now is the time to stand up and say no.”