Parking Garage, Set to Open Beneath Spruce Street School, Raises Worries

Many families walking to the Spruce Street school cross Beekman Street at William, where there are concerns about cars queuing for the garage, now enclosed within a green construction fence on the plaza outside the school. Photo: Carl Glassman/Tribeca Trib

Jan. 26, 2016

On the plaza outside of the Spruce Street School, cars next month will begin pulling in and out of a new parking garage beneath the school. Parents and the principal fear it could spell danger.

On nearby Beekman Street, already crowded with traffic and pedestrians, the increase in cars, they say, will put families and others at risk.

“It’s just bizarre to have it here,” said Sarah El Batanouny, co-chair of the Spruce Street School’s PTA as she stood beside a school door used by pre-kindergartners and middle schoolers—next to the fenced driveway where cars will soon be entering the garage. “I don’t know who planned this.”

Unfortunately, the plan for the garage preceded the one for the school.

The Spruce Street School, now a pre-k to sixth grade, occupies a portion of the base of the Frank Gehry-designed residential tower at 8 Beekman St. The land it is on was a parking lot sold to developer Forest City Ratner by NYU Downtown Hospital, now New York Presbyterian Lower Manhattan Hospital. That deal—arranged before Ratner had agreed to the school—included a garage operated by the hospital, with parking for the tower’s residents and the hospital. The public plaza, with the school on one side and the hospital on the other, was a bonus provided by Ratner in exchange for a zoning exemption allowing the developer to build higher.

Now, four years after the school opened, the garage is finally ready for business.

“It was not in people’s minds that there would be a school there, said Michael Levine, Community Board 1’s planning consultant, so why not allow a garage entrance in a public space? Now we see the seriousness of that decision.”

“I’m stumped at this point,” he added.

The proximity of the driveway to a school entrance is hardly the only concern. Parents are worried about exhaust from the vehicles. They also fear the garage will increase traffic congestion at the intersection of William Street, making it more dangerous for the many families crossing there. Along narrow Beekman Street, where cars and trucks already park on the sidewalk, the situation could be made worse, they say, by a queue for the garage. (Last April, a hospital employee walking near the school was struck by a car whose hit-and-run driver, apparently frustrated by the slow moving Beekman Street traffic, barreled down the sidewalk. And three years ago, less than a block from the school, a UPS worker was struck and killed when a driver lost control of her car. )

Add to that the additional traffic from two residential towers, one of them 51 stories, that will be opening down the street. “It’s too much,” El Batanouny said. “It’s really too much.”

“Our school is still growing,” said Principal Nancy Harris, whose middle school will add a seventh and eighth grade in the next two years. “We will continue to have additional congestion on the plaza. and adding vehicular traffic to that, even behind a fence, is problematic.”

Of particular concern, she noted, will be the safety of sixth graders who are self-dismissed and, beginning next month, will be allowed to leave the school for lunch. After school, children play on the plaza while parents and caregivers talk to one another. That will have to change, Harris said. “There needs to become a little bit of a learned behavior on everyone’s part.”

Robert Guimento, the hospital’s senior vice president and chief operating officer, said the 174-space garage will be valet-only and “overstaffed given our review of what that traffic pattern would look like.”

“We’ll continue to look at that staffing pattern in terms of getting cars off the street into the garage and the other way, getting out of the garage and off the property,” Guimento told Community Board 1’s Seaport and Youth committees last week in a joint meeting.

The Engine 6 firehouse is half-a-block away on Beekman Street and Guimento was asked whether more vehicles on the street could impede the response to emergencies. “I think those are issues we will have to explore once we get up and running,” he said.

“It seems like you inherited a bad situation from the way it was designed,” CB1 chair Catherine McVay Hughes told him. “It should never have been there in the first place.”

“But I also inherited the operations of it,” Guimento replied. “So we share your concern in terms of safety of folks both using it, the safety of the garage, the safety of the students, not to mention the safety of our own staff.”

In a statement to the Trib, the hospital said the garage construction fence will remain in place while we study the use and frequency [of the garage] during the first couple of months. As we get a better sense of operations patterns, we will continue to refine and develop a permanent solution over this study period.” The hospital said it is reviewing “several plans” for a permanent barrier with safety of students and all that use the plaza as a primary concern.

A community board resolution passed on Tuesday calls on the city’s Department of Transportation to make a comprehensive plan for traffic and pedestrian circulation in the area. Harris said she wants multiple city agencies to be involved in addressing potential problems.

“I work incredibly hard to make sure the children are safe the minute they open the school doors,” she said. “More and more it’s becoming my responsibility to make sure that they are safe en route and outside. And I can’t do that alone.”