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City Shrank Union Square School to Head off Lawsuits

By Jill Colvin | October 31, 2011 12:41pm
Michael Mirisola from the School Construction Authority showed drawings of the new school.
Michael Mirisola from the School Construction Authority showed drawings of the new school.
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DNAinfo/Jill Colvin

MIDTOWN — The decision to downsize a new public school near Union Square was driven by fears that angry residents would sue the city to try to block the project, a representative from the School Construction Authority said.

As DNAinfo reported last month, the Department of Education had originally planned to build a new 868-seat high school and middle school at 10 E. 15th Street, but decided to slash its size by more than 100 seats following an outcry from residents of the neighboring Victoria co-op. Many of them are vehemently against the school and warn it will make life miserable for residents and wreak havoc on the neighborhood.

The decision infuriated members of Midtown’s Community Board 5, who say the district is desperately in need of new classrooms to ease overcrowding and say the concerns of a single building shouldn’t take precedence over the rest of the community’s needs.

The board has been petitioning the DOE and local elected officials to reverse their decision and restore the seats since that time.

But Michael Mirisola, a project support managers at the SCA, said the department’s decision was driven by practical concerns that the residents of the Victoria might sue the city, which could have delayed construction indefinitely.

“The DOE made an educated guess,” Mirisola told the board’s Education, Housing and Human Services committee last week, explaining that having to alter the size of the school later on would force the city to go back to the drawing board.

“Timing is very, very important. We’re eager to get this open on time,” he said, adding that a delay of even a couple of months at this stage would mean pushing back the school’s opening by a full school year.

To help make up for some of the losses, he said that 42 of the 90 eliminated high school seats will now be moved to the new Beacon High School in Hell’s Kitchen, meaning that the local school district — though not the neighborhood — would take less of a hit.

The school is expected to become the permanent home of the Clinton School for Writers and Artists middle as well as a yet-to-be-determined high school that some are pushing to see become a Clinton High School.

The SCA has also agreed to a number of concessions to appease residents, including limiting student activity on a planned rooftop green space.

But many are still pushing for more to be done to mitigate the impact of the school.

“I’m concerned about security. I’m concerned about the number of people in the streets,” said one Victoria resident, who was one of about 25 people who attended the meeting, which also gave residents the chance to ask questions about the plans.

Many asked about the type of equipment that will be affixed to the roof, including a water tower and elevator and steam bulkheads, which are permitted to rise above the maximum zoned height.

Resident Cindy Mathias said she was concerned that florescent lights would stay on all night, disturbing neighbors’ sleep, and urged the SCA to consider using frosted glass.

“What’s going to prevent me from standing naked … and giving a show to the kids?” she asked.

Some went as far as to suggest that the new high school students would be dangerous.

Board members later said they were shocked by the level of hostility from the Victoria residents.

“I’m quite shocked,” said board member Asa Somers, who is also a public school parent.

“It’s embarrassing,” he said, slamming the residents as sounding “anti-child” and "anti-kid."

Others noted the space could have gone to build a bar or hotel and questioned whether concerns over the impact on the neighborhood were justified.

“This is Union Square. This is not Greenwich Village. This is not suburbia,” board member Eric Stern said.

Mirisola also rebutted, saying that if residents are worried about kids looking into their apartments, they should just draw their blinds.

Still, residents and board members found some common ground.

Some residents, including Mathias, urged the DOE to ensure that the school be reserved for kids from the local community. Others voiced support for an arts-based school that would appeal to those in the neighborhood.

Committee chair Layla Law-Gisiko said the board will be working with the DOE to shape the future schools.

“It’s very important that we work together,” she said.