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School Zone Drama Makes Real Estate Buyers Wary In Upper West Side

By  Amy Zimmer and Emily Frost | November 24, 2015 6:15pm 

 Potential buyers are worried that the zoning lines for the two local elementary schools — P.S. 191, left, and P.S. 199, right — will shift if a new zoning plan is eventually adopted. The DOE has delayed the decision on the zoning lines for now.
Potential buyers are worried that the zoning lines for the two local elementary schools — P.S. 191, left, and P.S. 199, right — will shift if a new zoning plan is eventually adopted. The DOE has delayed the decision on the zoning lines for now.
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DNAinfo/Emily Frost

UPPER WEST SIDE — Two hours before real estate broker Christine McAndrews was scheduled to show a rental at Lincoln Square’s Tower 67, the client canceled.

He nixed seeing the unit because the building’s school zone was in limbo, said McAndrews, of Mirador Real Estate.

Even though fair housing laws prevent brokers from discussing schools with clients, it’s no secret that many families decide where to move based on schools. The interconnection of real estate and education — and its impact on racial and economic segregation in the city’s school system — has come to the forefront recently with controversial school rezoning debates underway in pricey neighborhoods like Brooklyn Heights and the Upper West Side.

Tower 67, a 1980s-era luxury high-rise on Amsterdam Avenue between West 67th and 68th streets — where three-bedrooms start at $6,995 a month — is zoned for the area’s premier public school, P.S 199. That school has grown so popular with neighborhood families that it waitlisted roughly 100 kindergarteners last year and its building is more than 160 students over capacity. 

Because of the overcrowding, the Department of Education hoped to carve out some of the blocks currently in its zone, including Tower 67’s block.

Under one proposal, kids living there would have been sent instead to P.S. 191, a nearby school many locals see as an inferior choice because of its lower test scores and discipline issues. The under-capacity K-8 school has space for more than 200 additional students.

The DOE recently tabled that proposal and has yet to outline a new timeframe for a possible rezoning.

“The [client] said, ‘I heard about the rezoning. We’re not going to come and see the apartment,’” McAndrews recounted before the DOE's decision to stall the plans.

“'I don’t want to take a chance,’” he told her because the school zones were in flux.

“A lot of people go to certain buildings and are willing to pay $10,000 a month for rent if they have two or more children because then they are not going to put all of those kids in private school for $45,000 a year,” said McAndrews, a West Village resident who has been attending many of the Upper West Side's public meetings on the rezoning to stay up-to-date. 

And McAndrews wasn’t the only broker who has encountered clients hesitant to make a commitment to buy or rent in the Lincoln Square area before the new zoning lines are drawn, according to industry sources.  

Many parents have criticized the Department of Education’s lack of foresight on addressing the issue. They say officials watched as new residential towers were constructed in their areas, bringing more and more young families, without planning for schools until the overcrowded classrooms became a crisis. 

Residents and education leaders were also angry the city hasn’t found a way to require developers to pay to add school seats when they build new high-rises. 

When Mayor Bill de Blasio was recently asked what is preventing the city from creating new school zones to promote integration, he told reporters, “You have to also respect families who have made a decision to live in a certain area oftentimes because of a specific school,” according to Chalkbeat

Those families, he said, have “made massive life decisions and investments because of which school their kid would go to.”

The DOE has seemed to change its tune in recent days for some schools wanting to foster diversity. It announced an admissions pilot for seven Brooklyn and Manhattan elementary schools where principals petitioned more than a year ago to create new enrollment policies as they watched their student bodies become less diverse in recent years.

At Vinegar Hill’s P.S. 307, which is being re-zoned to include blocks from pricey neighborhood of DUMBO to alleviate overcrowding at Brooklyn Heights’ P.S. 8, the DOE responded to 307 parents’ calls to help maintain its community of low-income students. It proposed to give priority to children who qualify for free and reduced lunch to 50 percent of its seats (but only after in-zone students are given spots).

Still, education experts believe that with more comprehensive planning, changes can and should be made on the Upper West Side and across the city.

Of course, the “unicorn-and-rainbow solution” is for every school to be a “good” one, said Teachers College professor Aaron Pallas, “but we are nowhere near that.”

“I think that the mayor, as is true of just about every New York politician I can think of, is bowing to the reality that political support hinges on staying in the good graces of middle-class voters, and that middle-class parents do have a personal stake in choosing to live in neighborhoods that guarantee access to good schools.”

School zones everywhere, not just in New York City, are fluid, noted David Bloomfield, education professor at the CUNY Graduate Center and Brooklyn College.

“The mayor should not play into a non-existent right of the affluent to have their own schools based on property values,” he said. “This is a fundamental betrayal of his promise of unity and the American dream.”

He called the decision to delay the Upper West Side’s rezoning “a monumental failure of political will, planning, and community engagement by this administration.”

The power to change schools also lies with families, many said. 

When Tower 67 was built in 1986, P.S. 199 was not the coveted school it is today. Parents from the building and others nearby rolled up their sleeves, got involved and helped it improve over the course of years, many said. 

Now, parents at both P.S. 199 and 191 have said they think 191 has what it takes to turn around within the next few years rather than decades, under the leadership of a new highly regarded principal and PTA head, as well as increased investment from local officials. 

Parents have also been discussing the possibility of P.S. 199 helping 191 with fundraising.    

“A school also turns around when the community believes in it,” Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña said at a recent town hall meeting with parents.