HARLEM — Standing across the street from the new $100 million Harlem Children's Zone charter school in the middle of St. Nicholas Houses, Jamille Wilson, a 12-year resident, liked what he saw.
"There was nothing here before," he said from the newly reopened 129th Street, which used to end in a cul-de-sac. "The street cut off right here. Now there's more parking, plus this is better for the kids' future."
Officials from the New York City Housing Authority are hoping that the new 135,000-square-foot Promise Academy K-12 school for 1,300 students will serve as an example of how another controversial NYCHA proposal to build market-rate rental developments can benefit neighborhoods.
"St. Nicholas Houses shows the direction you could take and that there are clear choices to be made," said Fred Harris, NYCHA's executive vice president for development.
"It's an example of work we can show residents so they can talk to residents who have experienced the change," added Katherine Gray, a senior portfolio manager for NYCHA.
NYCHA could soon issue requests for proposal to develop what it considers underutilized space such as parking lots and playgrounds.
Under the proposal NYCHA would lease 14 parcels of land at eight Manhattan developments to raise money for the authority's capital operations. Between $30 million and $50 million per year could be raised to fund improvements at the dilapidated developments where the new housing would be located.
The plan has been criticized as a threat to the future of public housing by residents and one that NYCHA admits doesn't cover its stated capital shortfall, partially due to declining federal funding.
Eliminating the $70 million fee that NYCHA pays to the city for special police protection would better help to fund capital efforts, said Andrew Padilla, who produced a short documentary about gentrification in East Harlem called "El Barrio Tours," and said the two proposal are not comparable.
"A school that's going to be for kids in that neighborhood is far different than multiple luxury towers," Padilla said. "That we are going to lease all of this very valuable land to luxury developers with the hope that the benefit would trickle down to public housing residents is a hard sell."
Similar to the new proposal, the plan to sell the land at St. Nicholas Houses to Harlem Children's Zone raised the ire of residents at the complex when it was announced in 2010. The project is part of an initiative by President Obama named Promise Neighborhoods that seeks to integrate educational and community support as a way to improve struggling areas.
Many complained about the loss of open space and said the addition of a through street would add to safety concerns. The project is the first time NYCHA has reopened one of its superblock developments — parks, playgrounds, parking lots and open space stand in areas that were once part of the city street grid — to through street traffic.
St. Nicholas residents filed suit against the plan last July contending that the open space the school was built on should be considered parkland and that NYCHA should have sought permission from the city and the state Legislature before selling it. NYCHA obtained permission from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to sell the land.
The case was dismissed six weeks ago, said Harvey Epstein, associate director of the Urban Justice Center. Even though the building has been completed, Epstein said the group plans to file an appeal this summer.
"We want them to replace the parkland for the community," Epstein said.
Like the money from the planned infill development, NYCHA officials say the $7 million they received for the sale of the land was used for capital projects at St. Nicholas Houses and other developments. At St. Nicholas they have renovated playgrounds, added new landscaping, re-located parking lots and improved underground utilities.
Both Gray and Harris said NYCHA learned about the importance of addressing the concerns of residents during the Children's Zone project. They adjusted the location of parking lots, shifting the location of some windows for resident privacy and added speed bumps to address traffic safety.
"We don't have a lot of turnover at our developments so the people who live there are the experts," Harris said.
Padilla said residents feel ignored regarding the new proposals.
"They say they are having meetings with the community but NYCHA is just telling us what they plan to do," he said.
Some St. Nicholas residents said they still had concerns.
"The building looks nice but these projects are still festered with drugs. Why set up a school to bring the kids closer to this. Why bring them into something bad?" asked Walter Hutton, 80, a retired factory worker who moved into St. Nicholas Houses in 1956.
Albertha Whaley, a retired child care provider who has lived in St. Nicholas Houses for more than 40 years, said she misses the open space and trees.
"There's nothing we can do now. They took the space," she said one afternoon.
Other residents like Ieshia Gilchrist, 28, a homemaker whose 6 and 9 year-old sons go to HCZ afterschool programs, said they were happy to live near the school.
HCZ officials said they were pleased residents liked the new building and that a ribbon cutting was coming soon, but declined to comment further.
"A lot of people were protesting but I'm glad they built it for the kids," Gilchrist said. "Now that it's up, it looks good."