The Clinton School Battles for a Street Playground

By DNAinfo Staff on September 23, 2010 5:11pm  | Updated on September 24, 2010 6:23am

By Tara Kyle

DNAinfo Reporter/Producer

CHELSEA — When Principal Joseph Anderson opened the doors to the new site of for the Clinton School for Writers and Artists, he had nearly every amenity he could dream of — except for an inch of outdoor space.

So, after two weeks of watching his middle school students eat lunch indoors, in an area described by one 13-year-old as "really hot and crowded, and irritating," Anderson had a solution.

Since Monday, the children at M.S. 260 have been playing on a half block of 33rd Street, between Ninth and Tenth avenues, for an hour at lunchtime each day, protected by police barricades and a couple of NYPD officers.

"I think it's really fun," said 11-year-old Alexis Baez, one of about 300 tweens snacking and chatting Wednesday on her new playground, a 500-foot stretch of sidewalk and patches of road between parked cars that sits in the shadow of the Lincoln Tunnel.

Unfortunately for Baez, this makeshift schoolyard could now be in jeopardy.

Just after DNAinfo visited the playground, Anderson learned that he had not cleared all the bureaucratic hurdles necessary to legally shut down the street, which is located just two blocks from Penn Station and Madison Square Garden.

Anderson claimed that nobody had told him that the school needed approval from the Department of Transportation. Instead, he believed he was good to go with permission from the NYPD, which he said he received at a Sept. 8 meeting with the 10th Precinct. Police officers set up barricades on the street Monday through Thursday.

The principal also thought he had the support of Community Board 4, but transportation committee co-chair Christine Berthet said she was "shocked" to learn that the play street began operations on Monday.

"I had no idea," she said Wednesday evening, explaining that while the committee had supported the proposal at a meeting last week, the plan still needed to go before CB4's full board, which next meets in early October.

If such a resolution passes, CB4 would then send a letter of support to the Department of Transportation.

The DOT confirmed Wednesday that the department had not granted any approvals for the play street. Anderson said the Clinton School sent its official request to the department on Tuesday night.

CB4 has asked Anderson to bring letters of support from neighboring businesses to its full board meeting. So far, he said he has obtained verbal approval from the Frame Gourmet Eatery, directly across the street from the school, St. Michael's Cathedral, which sits just next to it, and PBS, which has offices just beyond the barricaded area. Other neighbors within the play street include the national headquarters of Planned Parenthood.

While some people who work on the block said they were happy to see the kids at play, others were rankled by the disturbance they said the students created.

"It's a giant mess," said Jim Tozer, owner of 424 W. 33rd Street, a 200,000 square foot commercial property located directly across the street.

Describing the play street as evoking "sounds of bedlam," Tozer said he feared tenants would not want to continue renting space on a street not always accessible to taxis and deliveries.

"It's clearly creating economic damage for us in the million dollar range," he estimated.

One of Tozer's tenants, however, said he had seen improvements in student behavior over the past few days.

"They'll get settled…they're not bad kids," said J.B. Park, owner of the Frame Gourmet Eatery. "Now, this neighborhood is livelier."

On Thursday morning, Anderson said he had not heard back from the DOT but planned to continue operating the play street "until someone in authority tells us we can't." The current plan for the play street does not include Friday lunches, so Anderson said he hoped to sort things out with the DOT in order to resume playtime Monday.

The NYPD did not return requests for comment.