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Harlem Children's Zone President Defends Plans to Build Charter School at St. Nicholas Houses

By Jeff Mays | September 17, 2010 4:32pm | Updated on September 17, 2010 4:33pm

By Jeff Mays

DNAInfo Reporter/Producer

HARLEM — The president and CEO of Harlem Children's Zone said he would be willing to consider some changes to a plan to build a $100 million charter school at the St. Nicholas Houses — but insisted that the project must move foward for the sake of neighborhood children.

Geoffrey Canada, speaking before residents at a Community Board 10 Land Use Committee meeting Thursday night, said he would consider objections to opening up 129th Street to through traffic between Adam Clayton Powell and Frederick Douglass boulevard.

But he pointed out that the $100 million project that aims to place a school on 93,000 square feet of open space at the St. Nicholas Houses would not make much sense without giving parents easy access to drop their kids off.

"I don't think it's practical to have a school without opening the street, but we are willing to consider it," Canada said, before pointing out that he had to put his future students' safety above all else.

"I get paid to look after children. It's my priority," he said.

A representative from the New York City Housing Authority said not opening up the street would likely cause the project to fail its environemntal review because the project would then rely on only one major intersection. Community Board 10 will vote on the opening of the street at a coming meeting.

Harlem Children's Zone is well regarded nationally for efforts at addressing both the educational and social barriers facing poor children in a holistic manner.

With a 2010 budget of $48 million, the group currently serves 17,000 children who live within 100 blocks of the Harlem school. President Obama recently announced a $10 million grant program to replicate the efforts of Harlem Children's Zone around the country, named Promise Neighborhoods.

Under the terms of the charter, children who live in the St. Nicholas houses will be automatically accepted into the new school and will be eligible for pre-school programs from the Harlem Children's Zone. The project is also expected to provide 100 short-term and long-term job opportunities for which St. Nicholas houses residents will get priority.

"This school will be the best thing for children," Canada said. "I know it impacts the community but... 10 years from now there will be kids from St. Nicholas Houses that will be among the best educated in the country."

The city is committing $60 million to the project and Harlem Children's Zone will provide the other $40 million. Harlem Children's Zone received a $20 million boost for the project Thursday from Goldman Sachs Gives, a charitable fund where the firm's partners direct a portion of their compensation to charity.

The current plan calls for building a 130,000 square foot K-12 school for 1,300 students atop space at the St. Nicholas Houses that is currently used as park space, sitting areas, parking lots, gardens and playgrounds. The public housing complex is located between West 127th and West 131st streets and Adam Clayton Powell Jr. and Frederick Douglass boulevards.

In addition, 129th Street, which now ends in cul-de-sac, would be opened up to Frederick Douglass Blvd and allow for through trafic.

Housing officials say no public housing units will be lost and all lost parking spaces at the site will be replaced. In addition, 30,000 square feet of open space will be redisgned and relandscaped.

Area residents say they are not against the idea of the school but are concerned about the loss of open space and the precedent set by committing public housing land for a private use. Some are also unhappy about potential environmental issues related to more car traffic in the area.

"The original intent at St. Nicholas Houses was to have a park-ike atmosphere, said William Danzy, co-founder of Citizens for the Preservation of St. Nicholas Houses.

"We think in this day and age people should be able to take advantage of open space and not have it cannibalized for something else," Danzy said.

Danzy's group has collected 700 signatures in opposition to the plan from about 3,300 residents. Danzy said the project will adversely affect the living conditions of residents at the site.

"I am not against schools being built, I'm against schools being built here," he added.

Danzy and other residents said that if approved, the Harlem Children's Zone project could encourage other private institutions to try to take over property at public housing, potentially opening up the housing stock itself for privatization or elimination.

Michael Kelly, general manager for NYCHA told residents that there were no plans for the sale of public housing. "NYCHA has no interest in selling off public housing," he said

Instead he says, NYCHA does not have the money to pay for the maintenance of its public housing stock and is looking for creative partnerships to better use its space while providing services for residents.

"The issue we're looking at is how do we leverage partnerships to provide the types of services and facilities to help better our residents," Kelly said. "This is an opportunity to reposition our properties," he added.

Other residents spoke favorably of the plan. Willie Mae Lewis, president of the St. Nicholas Houses Residents' Association, said the issues being raised by some pale in comparison to the benefits of the project.

"I raised two children here and I'm sad this opportunity wasn't here," said Lewis. "Our children should be first."