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Controversial New Union Square School Puts Residents at Odds

By DNAinfo Staff on September 20, 2011 5:23pm

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

By Jill Colvin and Mary Johnson

DNAinfo Reporters

UNION SQUARE — Union Square residents have scored a minor victory in their battle against a new school planned for 10 E. 15th St, convincing the city's Education Department to shrink its size. But others in the school-starved area are unhappy with the decision.

The Department of Education has slashed the proposed capacity for the new school from roughly 850 students to 730 students, a DOE spokesman confirmed Tuesday.

The height of the building will also be capped out at 116 feet or 8 stories, a representative from City Councilwoman Rosie Mendez’s office said at a Community Board 6 meeting last week. That's a change from prior plans, when the building was expected to be a minimum of 8 stories.

The changes were made in response to myriad concerns from residents of the nearby Victoria building, located at 7 E. 14th St, an Ed Department spokesman said.

Tenants hailed the reduction, saying it's a step in the right direction.

“Reducing the number of seats is, I think, a small victory,” said Orly Nhaissi, 31, a resident and board member at the Victoria, the neighboring building that has been leading the charge against the new school.

The Victoria residents have been vehement in their opposition to the school, and even went as far as to submit Freedom of Information Law requests to the School Construction Authority and contacted Mendez and Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer.

Neither Mendez or Stringer's office responded to calls for comment.

But Mendez' district office manager Barbara Sherman defended the city councilwoman at a meeting earlier this month, saying that she was doing her best to serve Victoria residents while also helping the rest of the community, which is desperately in need of school seats.

Residents said prevously that they were left in the dark by the School Construction Authority, the DOE's construction wing. They said they were told to expect the as-yet-unnamed public school to be completed by 2014 but have not yet seen any official plans.

“The SCA has been very difficult to work with, and they have not been very forthcoming with information,” Nhaissi said.

But members of Community Board 5, who have been strong supporters of the new school, criticized the joint push between residents and City Councilwoman Rosie Mendez’s office to amend the plans.

The new building is expected to house the Clinton School for Writers and Artists, currently located on West 33rd Street, as well as a new high school.

At a CB5 meeting earlier this month, members slammed the councilwoman for her stance in a neighborhood that is so desperately in need of schools, as well as for failing to consult with the community board.

CB5 District Manager Wally Rubin, who has been among those on the board fighting for the new school, said the councilwoman's attempts to undermine their efforts put the interests of a handful of tenants ahead of the community at large.

“It was not the community that objected to this project. It was one building worried about their property rates that objected to this,” Rubin said.

Nhaissi and several other Victoria residents said their concerns go beyond property values and lost views.

They say the city's studies don't properly factor in how the new school could negatively affect the community. They cited outdated statistics about local construction projects and rerouted traffic from the new pedestrian plaza. Those neighborhood additions could impact student safety in an already congested area, they said.

“Schools are important to me,” said Nhaissi, whose daughter, Sophie, is almost 2 years old. “It’s just a question of where, when and why.”

Members said that, going forward, both sides should try to work more closely together to avoid being blindsided like they were with the school.

For the residents of the Victoria, their plan is to continue working to get their voices heard.

“We’re doing what we can to work with the SCA, and we hope that they’ll work with us,” Nhaissi said. “Things work best when you work with the community rather than against the community.”