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St. Nicholas Houses Charter School Plan Should Be Smaller, Prof Says

By Jeff Mays | December 22, 2010 7:45am

By Jeff Mays

DNAInfo Reporter/Producer

HARLEM — A professor of urban architectural history at City College said plans to build a $100 million charter school on 93,000 square feet of open space in the middle of St. Nicholas Houses would bring more traffic to the area and potentially endanger kids and residents.

Ravi Kalia, who has taught at City College for 17 years, said the plan to remove the 129th street cul-de-sac to help facilitate a charter school by the Harlem Children's Zone would also take more green space from the northern side of the housing project.

Instead, Kalia has proposed a plan that would reduce the footprint of the school, preserve more open space and leave the cul-de-sac in place.

"Since the advent of the automobile, keeping vehicle traffic out of residential areas has been a priority. This plan will not only put kids at risk but residents at risk," Kalia said. "These complexes were developed 60 years ago with a clear vision of giving low-income people a chance to live in a respectful and healthy environment.

The public housing complex is located between West 127th and West 131st streets and Adam Clayton Powell Jr. and Frederick Douglass boulevards and is one of the New York City Housing Authority's superblock complexes. Buildings, parks, playgrounds, parking lots and open space cover up what would normally be through streets.

When it comes to the construction of the school, the St. Nicholas Houses community is divided into two distinct camps. Citizens for the Preservation of St. Nicholas Houses has collected 700 signatures against placing the charter school on the grounds of the complex. Another group of residents, including the president of the St. Nicholas Houses Residents' Association, is in favor of the plan because they feel it would benefit the children of the community and provide jobs.

Tyrone Ball, a member of the St. Nicholas Tenants Association, approached Kalia and asked for his opinion because he felt a moderate approach was missing.

Ball said he was concerned about the traffic that would be brought to the area as a result of removing the cul-de-sac but was not against the school being built at St. Nicholas Houses.

The current plan, which is supported by NYCHA and the city, calls for building a 130,000 square foot K-12 school for 1,300 students atop land at the St. Nicholas Houses that is currently used as park space, sitting areas, parking lots, gardens and playgrounds.

In addition, 129th Street, which now ends in a cul-de-sac, would be opened up to Frederick Douglass Boulevard to allow for through traffic in order to facilitate school bus and parent access to the school.

NYCHA and Harlem Children's Zone officials have said the school wouldn't work unless the street was opened up because it would likely fail an environmental review. This would be the first time NYCHA opened up one of its superblock complexes, a goal officials say would help the community feel less isolated from the surrounding neighborhood. It would also satisfy NYCHA goals of financially maximizing its complexes.

On Thursday, the Land Use Committee of Community Board 10 overwhelmingly voted against removing the cul-de-sac and returning 129th Street to the city's street grid. The full board will vote on the issue Jan. 5. The board's opinion would only be advisory and could be overridden by the city. NYCHA has said they plan to proceed with the street.

Community Board members said they felt NYCHA was trying to force the school on the community. They also expressed concern about a 13-story, 200-unit affordable housing building on the grounds of St. Nicholas Houses that was included in the plan and could also be built.

Kalia said under his plan, access to the school would be provided via the cul-de-sac and a parking lot on the Frederick Douglass Boulevard side of 129th Street.

Kalia said he rejects arguments that the area is isolated.

"They've got Seventh Avenue on one side, Eighth Avenue on the other, and they are in the middle of Harlem, in Manhattan. To say anyone living there is in isolation sounds like an oxymoron to me," Kalia said.

NYCHA and Harlem Children's Zone officials said they have had numerous meetings with the community. But given the resistance, Kalia does not feel enough community input was taken into account.

"If you are building on a barren piece of land you can do what you want. But they are trying to inject a totally new element into a housing community that has been here for 60 years without explaining all of the cost. That's not fair," Kalia said. "This plan is sensible. Let's put the school there but do it in a way that makes sense."