By Tara Kyle
HELL'S KITCHEN —The neighborhood is getting a brand new school, but concerns that the three-year construction project could affect the health of children at P.S. 51, next door to the building site in Hell's Kitchen, drove several parents to protest the planned school on Tuesday.
"Don't start construction until we move our children to a safe location!" read a placard carried by one of the roughly 50 parents gathered outside P.S. 51, on West 45th Street between Tenth and Eleventh avenues, on Tuesday.
Parents said they initially welcomed the prospect of the new school — when the new building is finished, the P.S. 51 students will move into the larger space — but said that fears of asbestos, noisy construction and loss of play space are now sparking anxiety.
The new school is just one part of a high-rise luxury development project that will span the block bordered by Tenth and Eleventh avenues and West 44th and West 45th streets. Protesters on Tuesday accused the Mayor's Office, City Council Speaker Christine Quinn and Community Board 4 of betraying the trust of parents by putting luxury developments ahead of their needs.
One mother, Rosalyn Williams, 45, was so worried about her son's health that she said she'd already begun the process of transferring her son out of P.S. 51.
"I just want everyone to feel what that feels like, when our children are in danger," said Williams.
Quinn's office and CB4's Health, Housing and Human Services Chair Joe Restuccia said that they have met with parent groups many times since beginning the land use approval process so that construction could start.
"Parents concerns for their children are perfectly reasonable and understandable," Quinn said. "We will continue to ensure that all relevant city and state agencies approve every piece of construction, to make sure it is safe for our children."
The parents want the city to temporarily move the existing school elsewhere in the neighborhood and fast-track the three-year construction process.
Neither is a realistic solution, according to Restuccia, who is also executive director of the non-profit housing organization Clinton Housing Development Company. Beneath the block, he explained, the presence of the Amtrak line and high underground rock are factors that contribute to the long construction timetable.
Asbestos fears are natural in city construction projects, according to Restuccia. But he said the highly controlled conditions of the process will ensure student safety.
"When you do any kind of toxic substance removal," he said, "it's not like someone goes out and just throws it in the dumpster."
Restuccia believes that the loud sounds of construction are the bigger issue. One idea bandied about has been to halt construction during standardized testing dates, he said.
He's also worried about the loss of play space. The new school is being built in part in P.S. 51's schoolyard. The students will now take recess in a nearby park, but they need funding to pay the supervisors and new crossing guards at Tenth Avenue.
For parents, fears about safety are bound up in concern over their place in a neighborhood that's rapidly gentrifying.
Tosh Anderson, father to two boys attending P.S. 51, said one worry is that the new school would implement an entrance exam.
"We want to make sure this is going to continue to serve our low-income, working class Hell's Kitchen community — what's left of it," he said.