City Struggling to Find Site for Downtown School It Promised to Build

In November 2013, Michael Mirisola of the School Construction Authority announced to the District 2 Community Education Council that the city had budgeted $50 million to build a new 456-seat school below Canal Street as part of its five-year school capital plan. Nearly 14 months later, the authority has yet to find a site for it. Photo: Carl Glassman/Tribeca Trib

Dec. 22, 2014

More than a year after the De­part­ment of Education announced that it had the money for a new 456-seat elementary school in Lower Manhattan, the agency is still struggling to find a place to put it.

At a meeting last month of Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver’s School Over­crowding Task Force, Melanie La Rocca, chief of staff for the DOE’s School Con­struction Authority, laid out the challenges the authority is facing as it tries to strike a deal in one of the hottest real estate markets in the city.

“As of right now, we don’t have a site,” La Rocca told the group. “That being said, that certainly isn’t indicative of a lack of trying. I think everyone around this table can appreciate the difficulty with finding sites.”

La Rocca said the authority’s brokers are “out there” looking for potential school sites and talking to owners. “It’s difficult to find sites that we can potentially buy, straight-up acquisition,” she said.

Space constraints, renovation costs and environmental problems are all potential deal breakers, La Rocca said.

Given the history of the most recent school sitings in Lower Manhattan—P.S. 276, the Spruce Street School and the Peck Slip School—Silver’s group ex­pressed little faith that the city would find a site on its own. The greatest need is in the Financial District.

“It’s largely the speaker and people from the community who helped to site these schools. It wasn’t the School Construction Authority or the city,” said Paul Goldstein, the director of Silver’s district office, who chaired the meeting.

“So here we go again,” he added.

Goldstein said his office has submitted a “bunch of sites” to the School Construction Authority but did not identify them. La Rocca hinted that negotiations may be ongoing.

“Obviously, nothing has come to fruition based on conversations [with owners] but that’s not to say those conversations are dead,” she said. “I wouldn’t want to get into more detail because we have to be mindful of sensitivity around transactions.”

Lower Manhattan school advocates were dismayed in November 2013 when a School Construction Authority official announced that the city’s five-year plan for building schools included fewer than half as many seats below Canal Street as they say they were led to believe would be built. Now, fearing even more delays (as much as five years can elapse between the time a deal is signed on a  building and the school doors open), they have been actively looking for a site.

Build Schools Now, an advocacy group headed by P.S. 150 parents Buxton Midyette and Wendy Chapman, has teamed up with Pratt Institute to identify possible sites. William MacDonald, chair of the school’s Graduate Architecture and Urban Design programs and a P.S. 276 parent, presented the group with 11 buildings or other sites that his department’s Design of Innovative Learning Environments research group had identified. Those sites, from Pier 16 on the East River to the former Syms building on Trinity Place to the potential for 3.5 million square feet of construction over the Battery Tunnel, were chosen in part because they could allow additional development under the zoning laws.

MacDonald said the sites either of­fered the possibility for adding a school or, in the case of city-owned properties, might make for a development swap.

“We could actually trade for one site that would lend itself more to a school and allow the developer to take over another public site,” he said. “That would allow for the best of both worlds, a great school and a great project.”

“If there is a chance for us to make a deal with a developer either as a mixed-use or a stand-alone, we’ll do it,” said La Rocca, who did not comment on MacDonald’s suggestions. “We have no qualms about pulling the trigger and signing a deal.”