By Jeff Mays
HARLEM— A plan by the Harlem Children's Zone and the New York City Housing Authority to build a charter school on open space at the St Nicholas Houses has sparked opposition from some residents.
Under the current proposal, 93,000 square feet of open space at St. Nicholas Houses, between West 127th and West 131st streets and Adam Clayton Powell Jr. and Frederick Douglass boulevards, would be sold to build a charter school for 1,300 students.
West 129th Street, which now ends in a cul-de-sac before Frederick Douglass Boulevard, would also be opened up to through traffic. Construction is slated to start this year.
The president of the tenants association supports the $100 million plan, but residents William Danzy and Sandra Thomas say their group, Citizens for the Preservation of St. Nicholas Houses, has gathered 700 signatures from the more than 3,300 residents of the complex in opposition. At least one other opposition group has been formed.
Residents have not been fully consulted about the proposal, they say, and they are concerned about the future of public housing. More than 60 residents attended a Community Board 10 meeting earlier this week to express their concerns about the project.
"They are going to take away this park," Danzy, a retired MTA train operator who has lived in the St. Nicholas Houses for decades, said Friday as he stood in the middle of the complex. Children rode bicycles and people lounged on the benches until raindrops began to fall. "Look at all these people sitting and enjoying this park, yet they still consider it underutilized."
Housing Authority officials say the project will have a positve impact on the neighborhood and the residents of St. Nicholas Houses.
Geoffrey Canada, who heads Harlem Children's Zone, has won national acclaim for his efforts at addressing, in a holistic manner, the educational and social barriers facing poor children. With a 2010 budget of $48 million, the group currently serves 17,000 children in a 100 block radius in Harlem.
Harlem Children's Zone did not return calls for comment.
Approximately 33 children from St. Nicholas Houses have applied to and been accepted into the school. The community spaces of the school will be available to residents in the evenings and on weekends.
In addition, there will be an opportunity for St. Nicholas residents to get more than 100 long-term jobs at the school, as well as during construction.
"Many of the issues raised at the CB10 meeting are issues that NYCHA has either already addressed, or will be addressing in upcoming meetings," NYCHA spokeswoman Myriam Ayala said in an e-mail. "This plan has many resident supporters."
NYCHA has also conducted extensive outreach, including a general public meeting, several follow-up meetings on educational opportunities and security, and distributed information about the plan on a ddor-to-door basis, Ayala added.
No public housing units will be lost in the construction of this project, to which the city will committ $60 million, but residents say they are still concerned about future plans for public housing.
"Are the projects going to be sold?" asked St. Nicholas resident David Brown at Wednesday's Community Board 10 meeting.
Thomas and Danzy say the open space at St. Nicholas Houses helps to make the area more livable and is also utilized by residents of surrounding neighborhood properties.
That's why the pair, who found one another at a community meeting about the project, say they will continue to fight it.
"What's to stop them from saying that they need us to move out for safety reasons after they break ground on the project," said Thomas. "That's why this issue is so important."
"There are people who are hopeless about this and say it's a done deal," said Danzy. "We don't feel that way."
The Community Board 10 Land Use Committee is set to consider the extension of 129th Street to Fredrick Douglas Boulevard on Sept. 16. The community board will make a recommendation, but the final say on the plan will come from the city.