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Housing Authority Says Benefits of St. Nicholas Charter School Outweighs Concerns

By Jeff Mays | January 6, 2011 1:47pm | Updated on January 6, 2011 4:03pm

By Jeff Mays

DNAInfo Reporter/Producer

HARLEM — The twisted, purple leaf plum tree will be preserved, the oval-shaped open space will be re-landscaped and the newly opened 129th Street will get speed bumps and other traffic safety measures.

Officials from the New York City Housing Authority said they had made great efforts to address the main concerns of tenants of St. Nicholas Houses worried that a 135,000-square-foot Harlem Children's Zone charter school in the middle of their complex would drastically reduce open space and that the plan to open a cul-de-sac to through traffic would decrease safety.

Ultimately, however, NYCHA officials say the benefits of the $100 million school outweigh the risks.

"It does mean where there was open space there won't be open space," Katherine Gray, NYCHA's development director said during a walk through of the project with DNAinfo. "It's not just about the building but what happens inside the building. In the balance, the question is 'Are the benefits that come from the school greater than the benefits that come from the open space?' Our position is yes."

NYCHA and Harlem Children's Zone have faced vehement opposition from St. Nicholas residents and community members who feel otherwise. Community Board 10, following a recommendation by its land use committee, voted overwhelmingly Wednesday night against opening the 129th street cul-de-sac and re-mapping the street that ends just before Frederick Douglass Boulevard.

The street is crucial to making the project feasible because it will serve as a drop off point for the 1,300 kids who will attend the school.

The board's opinion is only advisory and the street remapping now moves to the borough president's office and the city council which has the final say.

However, community board members said they were concerned about safety issues surrounding the removal of the street and that NYCHA could also build other properties at the complex without coming to Community Board 10.

NYCHA examined the feasibility of building a 13-story affordable housing building at St. Nicholas Houses while planning for the charter school project. They said there were currently no plans to build the structure.

"We are concerned that this is not the end of construction on NYCHA property," said board chairman W. Franc Perry.

But NYCHA officials cite the 135,000 families on NYCHA's waiting list and also the need to develop new ways of best utilizing its space for maximum financial benefit.

"We've made a commitment to work with City Hall to provide new spaces for the development of housing. Simultaneously, in Washington, there is movement to encourage housing authorities to embark on neighborhood revitalization initiatives," said Gray.

But unlike Chicago, NYCHA has not demolished its high-rise projects. The Obama Administration has expanded the definition of neighborhood revitalization by seeking to address all of the problems — education, unemployment, violence and poverty — that destroy neighborhoods.

As part of his Neighborhood Revitilization Initiative, President Barack Obama announced last year a $10 million grant program to replicate the efforts of Harlem Children's Zone around the country, named Promise Neighborhoods.

"We already have a mission to do asset management and look at development opportunities to meet the housing needs in the city but suddenly we have a neighborhood revitalization model offered by the federal government that is more in tune with what we are trying to do with the education focus and social service focus," Gray said.

NYCHA officials said the Harlem Children's Zone project fitted the bill. About 33 kids from St. Nicholas Houses have been accepted into the school. Children from St. Nicholas would gain automatic acceptance into the school.

There will also job opportunities for residents during construction and when the school opens. Harlem Children's Zone will offer programs for adults.

"We are really trying to build a community institution that everyone feels a part of. It's not just a NYCHA thing, but it brings in people from across the street. It provides a different view about 'where is home, where is your neighborhood'," Gray said.

Marty Lipp, the communications director for Harlem Children's Zone, said the school would provide important benefits to the community.

"It will give children at St. Nicholas access to a top-quality school, it will provide jobs, it will improve public safety as well as offering year-round enriching programming for adults, teens and young children," Lipp said.

"We understand that there are concerns about a new facility like this, but as with our headquarters on 125th Street, we believe the community will see this as an incredible resource for all."