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Battle Over East 15th Street School Escalates

By Jill Colvin | October 18, 2011 7:25am | Updated on October 18, 2011 11:02am
Residents of the Victoria have voiced a series of concerns about the new school's location.
Residents of the Victoria have voiced a series of concerns about the new school's location.
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DNAinfo/Jill Colvin

MIDTOWN — The battle over a contentious new school on East 15th Street escalated last week as dozens of furious residents confronted members of Midtown's Community Board 5 for the first time to voice opposition to efforts to increase the school’s size.

CB5's members are livid over the School Construction Authority’s decision to slash the size of a new public high school and middle school at 10 E. 15th St. from 866 to 735 seats, arguing the overcrowded district is desperately in need of new seats.

But their lobbying efforts to restore the seats have put them on a crash course with residents of the Victoria building at 7 E. 14th St., who say they were never consulted about the school, and fear it will have a negative impact on their Union Square neighborhood.

“It’s just unbelievable that they would happen to place a school in the back of a residential building,” railed Cindy Mathias, a resident at the Victoria who was among at least 75 people who turned out at the board’s October meeting on Thursday.

The residents succeeded in persuading the city in August to cut the school’s size by more than 100 seats with the help of City Councilwoman Rosie Mendez, but many still want the plans scrapped altogether.

Mathias blamed the Bloomberg administration for trying to replace larger schools with smaller ones and listed a litany of concerns, including the constant sound of bells.

“This is ridiculous… This is just not acceptable,” she said.

Josh Warren, 31, who has lived in the building for 10 years, said the problems residents are worried about have already begun.

“You seem to have made my life and my neighbors’ life very, vey miserable,” he told the board, complaining of constant drilling during the summer's demolition phase.

“It’s really, really, really loud. The noise is outrageous,” he said, arguing that the building was never consulted when talks first began about siting the school so close by.

But members of the board were largely unmoved by the complaints, insisting that while their concerns might be genuine, the needs of the district for new schools far supersedes any one building’s fears.

“We have begged — not asked — begged for schools,” said Board Member Greg Socha, one of the most vocal critics both of of the city’s reversal and Councilwoman Mendez's failure to invite the board to community meetings where the size changes were discussed.

“We were thrown under the bus, which I find disgusting,” Socha said.

Mendez once again apologized to board members for failing to keep them in the loop, which she blamed on an accidental oversight.

Still, she defended her efforts to forge a compromise with the city, which she said ensured that a school would be built, while at the same time easing residents’ concerns about the new building's size.

But many questions still remain.

When board leadership refused to allow Mendez to take questions from the anxious Victoria residents in the audience, the Councilwoman called an impromptu meeting in the hallway outside of the meeting, where residents begged for answers about everything from the new school's size, to its design and building schedule.

The SCA, which many complain often fails to communicate adequately, has not yet released its final designs for the school, which is expected to house both the Clinton School for Writers & Artists and a yet-to-be-named high school.

“Is there anything you can do to stop this?” frantic residents asked.

“They really don’t care,” another complained.

Mendez said there is likely little chance that the size of the school will change again, but tried to help residents understand where the board was coming from.

“They’re looking at this more wholly as a loss of seats in the school district,” she said. “It’s a balancing act.”

But Socha insisted that the residents of a single building should not have the power to override what the rest of the district wants.

“We are here for all the people in this community. We are here for all the children” he said, arguing that kids are better off when they can attend neighborhood schools close to home.

“Shame on everybody involved for kicking those kids out!” he said, to applause from other members of the board.

Layla Law-Gisiko, chair of the board’s Education, Housing & Human Services committee, said that after paying $34 million for the new building, the city should make the most use of the space.

Others argued that a similarly-sized hotel or residential tower, which would be built on the site were it not for the school, would have a larger negative impact.

“In Community Board 5, we consistently get shortchanged as a commercial area and we are not. We need seats,” said Board member Renee Cafaro before the board voted almost unanimously in favor of a resolution to write a letter to the DOE and local elected officials, urging them to restore the lost seats.

The sole ‘no’ vote was cast by Board member James Beitchman, who is also the president of the co-op at 25 West 15th Street and joined CB5 following a similar dispute between the board and residents of his building, who failed to stop a large skyscraper now being built on their block.

The board also voted unanimously in favor of a resolution calling on the DOE to ensure that a new elementary school being built at the Foundling Hospital site is reserved for neighborhood kids, instead of kids from across the larger district, which stretches all the way from Downtown to the Upper East Side.