One-Year-Old and Still Growing, Peck Slip School Is Out of Play Space

The Peck Slip School's play yard sits atop the building, which opened last year and is expected to grow from 250 students to a capacity of 961, according to Principal Maggie Siena. Photo: Courtesy of the Peck Slip School

Jun. 27, 2016

The shiny new Peck Slip School is already out of space. Play space.

A 6,100-square-foot rooftop play yard, offering dazzling vistas of Lower Manhattan, was too cramped this first school year for the running and ball tossing of the school’s 270 students, according to Principal Maggie Siena. And the number of kids will more than triple when the school adds fourth and fifth grade classes, she said.

“It’s impossible to accommodate all of our students on the roof for lunch and recess in a timely way,” Siena said. “We’ve experimented with how many kids we can have up there safely playing, and we found that 125 is really the number.”

“Some say, and rightfully so, ‘Hey, this is a brand new school. How can you be running out of space to play?’” said Emily Hellstrom, the Peck Slip PTA’s incoming president. “We need every available space we can get.”

In a statement to the Trib, a Department of Education spokesman declined to comment on the Peck Slip School’s request. He said the DOE “encourages” principals to provide elementary school students with at least 20 minutes a day of outdoor recess, adding that the city’s health code mandates “adequate” outdoor space for elementary school recess. The health code, however, does not say what constitutes adequate space. It does say that “all well children shall have a daily period of outdoor play, except during inclement weather.”

The space squeeze, Siena said, means that one grade at lunch and recess plays indoors in the school’s combination gym and auditorium. And to cacophonous results.

“In the gym it’s very, very noisy as you can imagine with 75 to 100 kids playing in there,” Siena said. “And there are kids who can tune it out, they’re fine. But there are quite a lot of kids who find that kind of noise overstimulating.”

Siena was making a pitch to Community Board 1’s Seaport Committee last week as part an application to the city to close Peck Slip to traffic between Pearl and Water streets, from 7 a.m. to 4 p.m., greatly expanding the school’s outdoor play area. Last year, with the board’s support, the school won approval for closing the westbound street at drop-off and pick-up times.

But not everyone in the neighborhood is enthusiastic about the idea. Members of the Old Seaport Alliance, a merchant and resident group, said they are worried about the impact on traffic.

“There are a limited amount of ways in and even fewer ways out [of the Seaport],” Neil Mossberg, a Front Street resident and Alliance board member, told the Seaport Committee. “Physical barriers on Peck Slip add to the perception that the Seaport is not always open.”

“We wonder,” he added, “are the blockades friendly to people walking around the neighborhood? And for the businesses that are already struggling, are they going to take a hit from this?”

There is particular concern about the impact to traffic on Beekman Street, the next street to the south. Adding to the unknown is the coming 505-seat iPic movie theater complex in the nearby Fulton Market Building.

Amanda Zinc, a Peck Slip School parent and Old Seaport Alliance board member who owns The Salty Paw on Peck Slip, said she supports the street closure but acknowledged that the impact to Beekman Street is unpredictable. She said she hopes the street closing will bring a renewed effort to convince the city to put a stop sign at Beekman and Water, where many children cross on their way to school.

And then there are “the damn tour buses” on South Street that are making turnarounds on Peck Slip, possibly, she said, because further up, the street is closed for part of the school day.

“These giant buses should not be going down these little cobblestone streets and making wide turns in a family zone, with tons of delivery trucks throughout the day,” she said. “Buses have to find a different turnaround.”

“The impacts, hopefully, will be such that the benefits to the school outweigh them,” said Whitney Barrat, executive director of the Old Seaport Alliance. Along with others from her group, she would like the street closed on a trial basis, “not just to see how the students are faring on the cobblestones but how the businesses are faring and what impact traffic has, if any, on the community.” But Barrat said she has heard no complaints from merchants since the street was closed for part of the day.

In a joint resolution the Youth and Education and Seaport Committees voted to support the request, with the understanding that the school, Old Seaport Alliance and the community board will discuss the effect of the street closure after the next school year. (The application needs further approvals from the Department of Transportation, NYPD and city Department of Health and Mental Hygiene.) But, Siena warned, “If you get to the end of the road and people say this is really burdensome, we may disagree. And that could be really hard.”