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City to Make Final Decision on Controversial Red Hook School Next Month

By Nikhita Venugopal | February 25, 2014 7:51pm
 Renderings for Basis Independent's new school at 556 Columbia St.
Basis Independent Brooklyn
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RED HOOK — A controversial private school proposed for Red Hook provoked both rage and praise from residents who spoke out at a city public hearing Tuesday afternoon.

The Board of Standards and Appeals discussed Basis Independent Brooklyn’s application for a special permit to build an almost 90,000 square-foot building in a vacant Red Hook parking lot. The space at 556 Columbia St. isn’t currently zoned for operating a school.

The board will make its final decision on the school’s application on March 25.

Basis is a 1,000-seat private school that plans to charge $23,500 in annual tuition with two scholarships in 2014 for incoming local kindergarten students. The school hopes to open later this year.

Almost 20 community members spoke at the public hearing in Lower Manhattan, each presenting reasons why they felt Basis was right or wrong for Red Hook.

Petitions, both for and against the school, have gathered hundreds of signatures from residents around Brooklyn.

Approval of the special zoning permit that’s being reviewed by the BSA would take away a small part of the neighborhood that’s zoned for industrial use, which would include building manufacturing facilities and factories, opponents said.

“This is one of the most successful industrial business zones in the city,” said Phaedra Thomas, who works with Gowanus Bay Terminal, an industrial facility, adding that industrial work is growing in the neighborhood, particularly along the waterfront. 

The school's opponents said the zoning change would not only eliminate jobs that could be provided through industrial uses but could lead to a widespread conversion of Red Hook's industrial zones for other purposes, like residential buildings. 

“Property owners and people who would like to rezone this community will use [this decision] as a precedent to say we want more lighter uses, different uses,” Thomas said.

Residents were also concerned that truck traffic through Columbia Street near the school's proposed building would create safety concerns for young students.

The board asked the Basis team to compile more information on its school bus parking facilities and a pedestrian safety plan to determine whether increased monitoring of traffic was needed, in collaboration with the Department of Transportation, at the corner of Sigourney and Columbia streets to make the area safer for students.

Others residents, unimpressed by Basis’s promises to provide community use of its gymnasium and auditorium and the full two scholarships, felt the “elite” school had nothing to offer the community.

Red Hook’s Community Board 6 failed to back the school in December because of its lack of community outreach to local residents and its “inappropriate" location in the neighborhood.

But supporters of the school banished those concerns. Many community members saw Basis as a symbol of progress in Red Hook and emphasized the importance of having more educational opportunities for local children.

“Our children need options. Our parents need options,” said Wally Bazemore, a longtime Red Hook activist, who lives in the public housing complex.

“I’m here to lobby for these children,” Bazemore said. “We have to open up opportunity.”

The school and supporters argued that the space had not seen any development, industrial or otherwise, in years so there are no existing jobs or industrial facilities that are being displaced.

“To say that [the school] is hurting the community because it is disrupting a potential of nonexistent economical or industrial development that has not materialized... I think is a stretch,” said attorney Flora Edwards.