By Jeff Mays
HARLEM — A plan to build a charter school at the St. Nicholas Houses suffered a setback Thursday night when a Community Board 10 committee voted overwhelmingly against a key piece of the city-backed project.
The charter school plan, backed by the Harlem Children's Zone and the city Housing Authority, would need a through street at 129th Street to allow for access to the $100 million school complex. All but one member of the land use committee voted against allowing that new road.
"It looked like they were trying to impose their will on the community," said board member Manuel Rivera of NYCHA and the Harlem Children's Zone. "They had the best of intentions but this community did not want the school there. This is a true David versus Goliath story."
The full board will consider the land use committee's recommendation on Jan. 5. And while the board's opinion is only advisory and NYCHA officials acknowledged that they would proceed with the street construction, the vote symbolizes an effort by public housing residents to have a say in the future of development during a time when NYCHA, spurred on by the need for new revenue sources to maintain its existing buildings, is embarking on changes at its complexes.
"These are our projects. These are our tax dollars," St. Nicholas Housing residents chanted at a raucous meeting before where police were called into the room.
The plan to create a through street, which involves removing a cul-de-sac, would be the first time NYCHA has significantly altered the layout of one of its superblock housing projects.
St. Nicholas Houses is located between West 127th and West 131st streets and Adam Clayton Powell Jr. and Frederick Douglass boulevards. NYCHA is actively seeking new partnerships to financially maximize its public housing developments.
Board members also expressed opposition to including a 13-story affordable housing building on what is now a playground at St. Nicholas Houses in the plan.
NYCHA Assistant Deputy General Manager for Development Ilene Popkin said there are no immediate plans "in the pipeline" to build the new 200-unit building that would face 131st Street. However, given the amount of space available for development on the property, and the need for affordable housing, NYCHA officials said it made sense to study the idea.
"When our development rights are of value it makes sense on any project to evaluate the opportunities there," said Katherine Gray, NYCHA's development director. "We have hundreds of thousands of people on the public housing waiting list."
But board officials said they were concerned that community input would not be sought for that project either after NYCHA officials acknowledged they would not necessarily be required to seek it if they decided to build additional affordable housing.
"Although the idea of housing was a theoretical abstract pulled from the sky just to test the waters to see if it was possible, many of us in this room know you just don't do a lot of that to waste money if down the road you don't intend to do something," said W. Franc Perry, chair of Community Board 10.
Harlem Children's Zone officials said there is a strong neighborhood demand for their services they offer, just resistance to building at St. Nicholas Houses. A petition drive there has received 700 signatures from residents opposed to the plan.
But the community center they run at St. Nicholas Houses is beyond capacity and a new school there will benefit local children, Harlem Children's Zones officials said.
Harlem Children's Zone is well regarded nationally for addressing both the educational and social barriers facing poor children in a holistic manner. The group currently serves 17,000 children in 100 blocks of Harlem. President Barack Obama recently announced a $10 million grant program to replicate the efforts of Harlem Children's Zone around the country.
Some St. Nicholas residents said they were in favor of the charter school.
Juanick Nickens, 33, has lived in St. Nicholas Houses all of her life. She said her daughter Javaha, 3, has been accepted into the new charter school and is already involved with several helpful Harlem Children's Zone programs.
"My child is getting a very good education. She is learning a lot, and I am too," Nickens said. "I love St. Nick. That's my home, but everything can go for some changes for the better now and then."