By Jeff Mays
HARLEM — The 129th Street cul-de-sac at St. Nicholas Houses is more than just a dead end to some residents; during the summer, kids play in the fire hydrant and older residents say they feel safer because there is less traffic.
The complex, located between West 127th and West 131st streets and Adam Clayton Powell Jr. and Frederick Douglass boulevards, is part of a New York City Housing Authority superblock. Buildings, parks, playgrounds, parking lots and open space cover what would normally be through streets.
But a plan by the Harlem Children's Zone and NYCHA to build a $100 million charter school on 93,000 square feet of open space would require the 129th Street cul-de-sac to be opened up to through traffic to accommodate school buses and parents dropping off their kids.
The Land Use Committee of Community Board 10 will vote next Thursday on whether to recommend the cul-de-sac be reintegrated into the street grid. If it were approved by the city, it would be the first time NYCHA has broken up one of its superblock housing complexes.
"NYCHA has not done this before," said housing authority spokesperson Sheila Stainback.
Superblock housing projects like St. Nicholas Houses began popping up in the 1930s with the goal of providing urban residents with open space and fresh air.
Sandra Thomas, a co-founder of Citizens for the Preservation of St. Nicholas Houses, a group opposed to locating the charter school on the grounds of St. Nicholas Houses, said the cul-de-sac contributes to the spacious feel of the complex.
"The cul-de-sac provides safety for the residents of St. Nicholas houses. It is a safety net it and is used for entertainment and play areas for the kids," said Thomas, a long-time resident.
But in recent years, urban designers have said superblock complexes are isolating. With no through streets, residents were disconnected from the surrounding neighborhood, planners said. The design also prevented foot traffic that could help prevent crime.
Geoffrey Canada, president and CEO of Harlem Children's Zone told St. Nicholas residents in September for the school to work, the cul-de-sac would have to go.
"I don't think it's practical to have a school without opening the street," Canada said.
The design change is one the Housing Authority has been considering for years, said Nicholas Dagen Bloom, associate professor at the New York Institute of Technology and author of "Public Housing That Worked: New York in the Twentieth Century."
"One of the great historical ironies was the reason the streets were pulled was to make a safe environment for children," Bloom said. "When these superblocks were created the notion was the street was the great threat. The notion was that kids who used to live in tenements played in the streets. The idea was to create an island of calm."
It's unclear whether putting streets through these large complexes would provide any of the benefits the housing authority is seeking.
"Putting the street back in isn't one way or the other going to change the environment completely," Bloom said. "A lot of the issues with public housing don't have to do with the layout, it's who is living there, jobs and the policing. What NYCHA is trying is an experiment to see if restoring the street grid will encourage more people to be on the street."
Thomas is skeptical. Despite assurances from the housing authority that the entire complex was not at risk of being taken over, many residents were not convinced, she said.
"This is going to set a precedent. There is a bigger picture here."