By Jon Schuppe
MANHATTAN — A year-old East Harlem charter school is negotiating with city officials to develop what it hopes will be become a model for future school construction: a combination school/affordable-housing complex in one of New York’s poorest neighborhoods.
The plan was hatched by Harlem RBI, a non-profit organization that formed in 1991 when it created a youth baseball program on some dilapidated fields on East 100th Street. The program has since grown into a multi-million-dollar operation that runs baseball and after-school programs for hundreds of local children. In September 2008, it opened Dream Charter School.
Dream, part of a mini-explosion of charter schools in East Harlem, shares classrooms at P.S. 38 on East 103rd Street. But the so-called “co-location,” is far from ideal. The sharing of space sometimes creates tension between the two institutions. And Dream wants room to grow.
So its administrators have begun talks with several city agencies to embark on an $85 million development on 104th Street, between Second and Third avenues. The project would combine a 60,000-square-foot school and 10 stories of low-income housing.
Harlem RBI hopes that a significant chunk of that money will from the Department of Education. But the group plans to raise most of it on its own, executive director Richard Berlin told members of Community Board 11 earlier this month.
“We hope this will be a model for how schools and housing can be developed together,” Berlin said.
Typically, a creation of a new charter school sparks intense debate in East Harlem. Many public-school parents feel that their neighborhood is under siege by charter schools, which are privately run but receive public money. Some of the neighborhood’s failing public schools are being closed and replaced with new charters, while other public schools are sharing space with charters.
But there doesn’t seem to be much backlash to the Harlem RBI plan. When Berlin visited the Community Board’s education committee recently, members questioned him about the divide between public and charter schools, but they did not criticize his proposal.
Berlin stressed that his organization has a long way to go before it receives the myriad city approvals it needs to break ground. Harlem RBI hopes to start construction in about a year, and open the new K-8 school in 2013.
“It literally remains a concept,” Berlin said in a brief interview. “A concept with a lot of energy behind it, but still, it’s a concept and it’s going to take a lot of work to make it real.”
Harlem RBI has some experience dealing with government bureaucracies. In the late 1990s, it started a fight with the city over a developer’s proposal to build on the lots it reclaimed as ball fields. Hundreds of kids demonstrated outside City Hall. In 2002, the developer agreed to build the group a new field.