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Unity Prep's Clinton Hill School Plans Dealt Setback With Board Vote

 A developer is seeking zoning variances to allow the construction of a seven-story building on the lot at 32 Lexington Ave., which would the new home of Unity Preparatory Charter School. Neighbors worry that the building would block light on the street, particularly to 15 Quincy St., the below-market-rate building in the rear of the same property.
A developer is seeking zoning variances to allow the construction of a seven-story building on the lot at 32 Lexington Ave., which would the new home of Unity Preparatory Charter School. Neighbors worry that the building would block light on the street, particularly to 15 Quincy St., the below-market-rate building in the rear of the same property.
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DNAinfo/Noah Hurowitz

CLINTON HILL — Plans for a seven-story charter school on a low-slung block of Lexington Avenue were dealt a setback Wednesday night when Community Board 2 voted to recommend against granting the developer zoning variances they would need to build.

In a tense, special-session vote held Wednesday at the board’s May general meeting, members voted overwhelmingly against the application by the developer, who is looking to get approval for five zoning variances in order to construct a seven-story building for Unity Preparatory Charter School of Brooklyn, a charter school currently based in Brownsville.

The vote against the application — which is not binding but will likely influence the eventual decision by the Board of Standards and Appeals — was good news to neighbors of the site, who worry that the building would be too high for the neighborhood and fear that it would throw shadows onto the street and neighboring buildings, particularly 15 Quincy St., a six-story, below-market apartment building on the same property.

Several members of the board’s Land Use Committee — which in an unusual turn of events initially supported the application but later reversed course and accused the developer of withholding information — stood up to explain their initial vote, and they were joined by Councilwoman Laurie Cumbo, who spoke forcefully against the plans.

“I cannot express how much I am opposed to a 10-story structure at that location,” Cumbo said, referring to the extra height added by a ceiling that would cover a rooftop gymnasium. “These variances at this degree would block all natural sunlight on the back of the [surrounding] properties.”

But parents and administrators at the school accused opponents of having a “not-in-my-backyard” response to a project they view as being in the best interest of the neighborhood’s children and families, particularly the current Unity Prep high-school students who have to make a lengthy commute to the school’s site at a former furniture factory at 1150 East New York Ave. in Brownsville.

“In the long run, I don’t think people are looking at the bigger picture,” said Trudy Sandy, who has a ninth grader at the school. “Even when our kids are long gone, this school will still be there to help students in this district.”

Huddling with parents on the sidewalk following the vote, Alykhan Boolani, Unity Prep’s principal, said he was frustrated by what he saw as scoring of political points by Laurie Cumbo.

“If you’re actually dedicated to black and brown youth in this community, who are deeply underserved, then you have to be willing to stick your neck out a little bit,” he said. “The losers here are ultimately children. I know that ultimately it’s not about the school or an affront to us personally, but at the end of the day, to see our children lose is always gonna be hard.”

The building would go up on an area of the property that currently functions as a parking lot for residents of 15 Quincy St., which was built in 2006. Despite leaving a sizeable chunk of the property uncovered, the parking lot was granted all of the site’s allotted development rights — meaning the city would first have to approve a zoning variance to allow any construction there.

In addition to new development rights, the application to the city’s Board of Standards and Appeals, which oversees small-scale zoning variances, includes the following requests:

► New development rights to build on the lot
► An allowance to build to 101.5 feet (seven stories plus the ceiling for a rooftop gym), higher than current zoning allows
► A setback waiver, in order to build straight up rather than include a setback at 45 feet, as is required by the current zoning
► An allowance to cover move of the lot than would otherwise be allowed by current zoning
► An allowance to have the rear yard be 25 percent smaller than the zoning calls for

The board’s chairwoman, Shirley McRae, said it didn't sit right with her to allow the application to proceed to the Board of Standards and Appeals without the board weighing in, so she used her power as chair to address the issues during her monthly report Wednesday and come up with a new resolution, she said.

McCrae, along with other board members who spoke out against the application, said she hoped to make it clear that the recommendation against approval had nothing to do with the school or its students, but rather was concerned with the specific zoning variances under consideration.

“This variance is being considered so a charter school can be built on this site, but the school is not what the board is voting on,” she said. “The board and community should be voting on exactly what the application is calling for, and that’s the variance. We’re not here to redesign a developer’s building.”

The lone voice of support for the variance came from Eric Sproule, a board member who described himself as an unlikely defender of a charter school. Sproule, who emphasized his opposition to charter schools, particularly those that co-locate with Department of Education-run public schools, said the Unity Prep plan struck him as a compromise.

“If there’s no co-location with a neighborhood school, if the charter school stands alone, I would not stand against it. Here is a building that stands alone,” he said. “When we talk about finding an alternative space in the neighborhood, my question is where. We need more schools in the neighborhood, and land is at a premium. I’m voting for the school.”

But in the end, the board voted overwhelmingly to recommend against the application, with just two members voting against the resolution and two abstaining.

The application will next go before the Board of Standards and Appeals, but a hearing date has not yet been scheduled.