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Residents Battle Against New Union Square School

By Mary Johnson | July 19, 2011 6:33am
Residents at the Victoria, a co-op at 7 East 14th St., whose back apartments face the school's construction site, are worried about quality of life issues.
Residents at the Victoria, a co-op at 7 East 14th St., whose back apartments face the school's construction site, are worried about quality of life issues.
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DNAinfo/Amy Zimmer

UNION SQUARE — A group is mobilizing its fight against a new, 850-seat middle and high school scheduled to be built in Union Square.

Tara Levy, 31, who lives in the Victoria building at 7 East 14th St, has been spearheading a push to convince elected officials and community groups to study the impact of the yet-unnamed public school slated to rise at 10 East 15th St.

Levy said she believes the city Education Department's School Construction Authority put together a faulty environmental impact report based on outdated information, and "has been acting without the community."

“It’s been extremely hard to get information from them," she said. "They have not been very forthcoming with sharing and working with neighboring buildings on their plans.”

Tara Levy said the SCA did not account for traffic patterns that have been altered because of the new pedestrian plaza at Union Square.
Tara Levy said the SCA did not account for traffic patterns that have been altered because of the new pedestrian plaza at Union Square.
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DNAinfo/Olivia Scheck

Levy recently obtained documents regarding the proposed project from the SCA by requesting them under New York’s Freedom of Information Law.

She and other locals sorted through roughly 160 pages of documents. Levy then drafted a report criticizing the findings on numerous points, and sent it to City Councilwoman Rosie Mendez, Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer and the Union Square Partnership.

A spokesman for the partnership declined to discuss the letter, but said in a statement, "The Union Square Partnership's role has been to facilitate dialogue between the School Construction Authority and the community, and to disseminate information about the proposed school project at 10 East 15th St."

"The SCA has promised to return later this summer to share the design of the new facility when available," the spokesman added.

Mendez and Stringer's offices did not immediately return calls and emails seeking comment.

Levy, who said she is not a real estate or zoning professional but just a concerned citizen, claims the SCA-commissioned environmental impact study for the site fails to address the potential effect the school will have on the Victoria, a 21-story co-op building with units that overlook the site.

The school is slated to stand at least eight stories tall, which will obscure the views from lower-floor apartments. That would affect residents’ quality of life and degrade property values, Levy said. 

According to Levy, the report also uses traffic data from 2009, which does not take into account the 16-story New School building under construction at 14th Street and Fifth Avenue. The 2009 study was also completed before the new pedestrian plaza on Broadway, between 17th and 18th streets, opened last year. Traffic in the area has subsequently been rerouted.

Levy, who does not have children, said she is in favor of adding school seats in District 2. But she wants the city to build a facility that is more appropriate for the bustling neighborhood that will surround it.

“Everyone is for more schools and more seats,” Levy said. “But it needs to be done in the right way. And it needs to be done in a safe way.”

Community Board 5 passed a resolution supporting the SCA’s site plan in May. The school is now slated to open in 2014, and demolition crews have already begun to tear down the Teamsters Local 810 union building, which the SCA purchased along with the land for $39 million.

When construction is complete, the Clinton School for Writers and Artists, which has been temporarily housed in a former Catholic school on West 33rd Street, would move to the new location, and 550 seats would be dedicated to a high school that will also be housed on site.

In a recent interview with DNAinfo, the president of the Victoria’s board of directors, Ken Salzman, expressed similar concerns as Levy.

"It's about understanding the project and making sure what is supposed to be done is done and corners aren't cut and there's mitigation for residents' quality of life for the next several years," said Salzman, a father with three children in public school in District 2.

"We're looking to form a strong bond with our neighbor."

On July 6, Councilwoman Rosie Mendez, who represents District 2, attended a Victoria co-op board meeting. Levy estimated that about 100 residents also attended.

“[Councilwoman Mendez] was concerned,” Levy said, “and she mentioned that she would try and do what she could to help, to make sure that the school is of the right size for the area.”

Although Levy’s name is the only signature on the report, she said she worked with several other residents in reviewing the documents. Carol Zalben has also been involved in the effort. For her, the biggest element missing from the report was the view students will have into neighboring apartments.

“The building itself is 30 feet away from the living rooms and bedrooms of our apartments, and the children are going to be looking into people’s private lives,” said Zalben, who has a 22-year-old son. “And what are they going to see? They’re going to see inappropriate activity.”

Zalben, who works in the film and television industry, also expressed concerns about sanitation and security and the increased toll that an influx of students would take on the already congested neighborhood.

“Nothing was thought through,” Zalben said. “People are very, very, very upset.”

The Department of Education did not immediately return calls seeking comment, but Levy said she has been told that official plans for the school’s construction will be released in August.

Until then, the final details on just how big the school will be and how many seats it will hold remain to be seen. At a recent meeting with residents and an SCA official, the official refused to say just how high the new building is expected to rise, she said.

“For the record, I am in favor of adding schools to our community,” Levy wrote in an email, “but the process needs to include the community in the planning and ensure the site is safe and well planned for children.”