By Matthew Friedman
A Community Board committee has postponed their decision regarding the expansion of the Manhattan Country Day School at a building on a quaint Upper West Side block. The school, which is now situated at 7 East 96th Street, recently bought the building at 150 West 85th Street, up until now the home of Mannes Music School. At the monthly meeting of the CB7 Land Use committee, the school put forth a proposal that would increase the square footage of the building from roughly 35,000 square feet to 40,000 as well as add an extra story to the currently six story 85th street standout. Fred Becker, the school’s attorney, said the school would make sure the addition does not look like “a Costco roof.”
The building, built in 1928 before zoning laws existed, already exceeds the restrictions for the block regarding floor area. With the proposed expansion, the school would increase the total height of the building to 87 feet from the current 72, far past the zoning maximum of 75 feet. Representatives from the school described the expansion as necessary if the school is to continue with its current system. “Without asking for the increase in floor area, we are effectively cutting out 10 classrooms, getting rid of the second class that we want to add to each grade. We can then also no longer address our programmatic needs,” said Becker. Manhattan Country Day School currently has 200 students, 76% of whom are aided financially in paying tuition. As the night wore on, Becker revealed that unless the school is able to gradually increase the number of students to 400, they will not be able to continue providing the level of financial support that they currently do for the majority of their students.
Mr. Becker, the proposal’s main presenter, highlighted the school’s record as a good neighbor while at its 96th Street location. He explained that the school has already arranged to work together with Dorot, a local charity also housed on West 85th Street, to keep conscious of the community. Once the meeting had been opened up to the Upper West Side public, however, many residents of the block expressed dismay that there had not been more community outreach from the school during the early planning phases of the proposal. One resident of 201 West 85th Street went as far as to say: “You’ve really started off very badly.”
Tensions were high as many residents from the street sounded off. The main concern was that light would be blocked if the school added a 15-foot penthouse. As part of the application for the expansion, the school conducted a sun-shadow study which determined that the new height of the building would have only a minimal effect on the light that reached the other side of 85th Street. Many residents, however, said they had bought property on the north side of the block because the buildings on the south side are short and protected by zoning laws so they wouldn’t block their sunlight. A woman from 151 West 85th Street, directly across from the school, expressed concerns about the noise level from having 200 elementary school children entering and exiting the building at the same time each weekday.
People praised the Mannes School, which is a music school with mainly college-aged students, for lightening up the south side of the block, which is dominated by Brandeis High School to the east of 150. “Mannes is the jewel of the street, it offsets the boxiness of Brandeis,” a resident of 131 West 85th Street argued. “Its already overbuilt. They purchased the building knowing it was overbuilt and now they are asking to extend it,” said William Morrow after the meeting. He was not alone in thinking that the school should have considered the fact that it could not survive without the approval of their expansion.
Not all of the community members present at the meeting seemed to be against the expansion, however. Edward Tso, a board member at 160 West 85th Street, which sits just to the west of the school, said that the building’s board had not come to a decision about whether to be for or against the expansion: “We are still in an information gathering phase and we all need to keep an open mind. I’m not here saying I agree with everything they are doing, but we have to see that the alternatives could be worse.” After hearing from the future neighbors of the Manhattan Country Day School, Land Use committee co-chair Page Cowley began to discuss the possibility of postponing the final decision on the expansion. She cited the fact that the school had not met with the community as much as they would have liked and that it was getting late. Becker, the attorney, reluctantly agreed to postpone until the next committee meeting despite the fact that the school has limited time to complete construction before the targeted fall 2016 move for the school.
The Land Use committee will decide on whether or not to accept the school’s application for expansion at their meeting on March 18th. If they approve it, the application will then be discussed at the full CB7 meeting on April 7th (which is not the first or second night of Passover, a committee member pointed out during the meeting). For more information go to www.nyc.gov/mcb7
Also at the meeting on Wednesday:
A new health club geared towards children with special needs, Bod Fitness, was approved to go into the basement of 55 Amsterdam Avenue, a new high-rise building at West 62nd Street.
The Land Use committee voted unanimously to extend the term special permit and a change of ownership at Equinox, another health club at 160 Columbus Avenue (West 68th Street).