By Julie Shapiro
LOWER MANHATTAN — The city will build a new elementary school for lower Manhattan at the site of the Peck Slip Post Office, Schools Chancellor Dennis Walcott announced Thursday.
"Peck Slip will become a reality," Walcott told the parents and principals gathered at Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver's school overcrowding task force.
"The contract has not been signed, but we're far enough along to announce it today."
One education activist shouted "Bravo!" and the room erupted in applause.
The city has been negotiating with the United States Postal Service for months to buy the 1 Peck Slip building and turn it into a school. A postal service representative called the talks "very positive" at a meeting on Tuesday.
Even though the deal hasn't concluded, the city will begin the public review process for siting the school next week, Walcott said.
After public hearings over the next couple of months, the City Council and the mayor will weigh in this fall, and then officials will begin designing the school in December, Walcott said.
The new school will start with kindergarten classes in temporary space in Tweed Courthouse in the fall of 2012, and it will move into its permanent Peck Slip home in the fall of 2015.
The Department of Education has not yet decided whether they will renovate the existing 70,800–square-foot post office building or knock it down and build a new structure, Walcott said.
Paul Hovitz, a Community Board 1 member who first suggested building a school at Peck Slip over a year ago, asked Walcott if the city would consider bumping the school up to 600 elementary seats, since activists are already predicting that the school will be full from the day it opens.
Walcott looked slightly taken aback.
"Let's just bask in the glow of the announcement, and then we can talk about the number of seats [another time]," Walcott told Hovitz.
Walcott acknowledged that the new school would not fix all of downtown's overcrowding problems, but he said it was a good start, and he promised to return to Silver's task force soon to discuss more detailed issues.
Eric Greenleaf, a P.S. 234 parent and professor at New York University's Stern School of Business who has done extensive population projections for lower Manhattan, warned Walcott that there is little time to waste.
"There is a very, very urgent need here for a quick resolution to the overcrowding problem," Greenleaf said. "By 2014, there won't be room for half of all incoming kindergarteners down here."
Walcott listened as Greenleaf and others spoke, and he thanked them for their comments, but he did not take any notes.
While some parents had sharp words for Walcott and the Department of Education, Walcott still got a much better reception than his predecessor, Cathie Black.
Black met with Silver's task force in January, and upon hearing similar evidence of downtown's school overcrowding crisis, she made her infamous comment that what the neighborhood needed was birth control.
With a twinkle in his eye, Silver made a brief reference to Black during Thursday's meeting.
"I expect the chancellor's visit today will generate significantly different and more positive headlines [than] the last time the chancellor came," Silver said.