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Plans for Spence School Atrium Anger Neighbors

By Amy Zimmer | June 15, 2011 7:00am | Updated on June 15, 2011 7:52am
The Spence School in Carnegie Hill.
The Spence School in Carnegie Hill.
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Facebook/the Spence School

By Amy Zimmer

DNAinfo News Editor

UPPER EAST SIDE — The Spence School, the elite girls school that inspired the rarefied world of Gossip Girl, has outraged its tony Carnegie Hill neighbors with plans to build a glass atrium connecting two of its buildings.

School officials say they need the atrium between 22 East 91st St. and the townhouse located behind it at 17 East 90th St. to spare students from having to climb up and down a few flights of stairs, and walk across an outdoor courtyard.

Spence parents have said their girls get "scrapes and bruises" speeding up and down stairs to class during the estimated 3,200 trips made each day.

But neighbors abutting the shared courtyard say the plans are too big and the glass atrium will rob them of light and air.

A rendering of the Spence School's atrium plans presented to Community Board 8's land use committee on June 8.
A rendering of the Spence School's atrium plans presented to Community Board 8's land use committee on June 8.
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courtesy of Spence School

They want the school to scale back its plans, saying that the 20-foot wide, 30-foot-tall atrium, which will connect the first and second floors of each building, will still mean students have to walk up and down stairs to reach the passageway.

Because the the ornate landmarked townhouse at East 90th Street, that Spence bought in 2008, and the adjacent building on East 91st Street are part of the Carnegie Hill historic district, and because the proposed changes violate existing zoning laws, the plans require permission from the city.

It has been winding its way through the approval process, making neighbors more and more irate.

"Our privacy, our life is getting boxed in," said Roger Levin, of 15 E. 90th St., claiming his bedroom window will be five feet away from the school's new connector.

Levin aired his grievances before Community Board 8's land use committee last week in a last-ditch attempt to get it to vote the plan down before it faces its final hurdle at the Board of Standards and Appeals.

Despite community criticism, the Landmarks Preservation Commission has already cleared the Spence project, as has Community Board 8.

If approved, the passageway will "fundamentally change the character of the rear yard corridor," Garfield Miller, a resident for more than 30 years in the co-op at 21 East 90th St., told community board members.

"The preservation of light and air in the rear yard is one of the most fundamental rights of the (existing) zoning."

Levin's daughter, Chloe, a sixth grader at Chapin, told board members she didn't understand why Spence girls needed the building connector. Chloe said she and her classmates have no trouble going up and down stairs and making it to class on time in her school's East End Avenue building.

Lo van der Valk, president of Carnegie Hill Neighbors, said that Spence's plans would be the area's largest addition in any rear yard space in the Carnegie Hill historic district. Even when architect James Stewart Polshek designed Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum's addition, he didn't build it as tall, he said.

Spence's lawyer, Shelly Friedman, told board members that the LEED-certified eco-friendly building addition would be the most minimally invasive plan of action.

"It has been vetted by educational planners and educators," he said.