'While We Still Have Hope': PS 150 Parents Fight Pending Eviction

Before school, parents talk and children play in the plaza in front of PS 150. Buxton Midyette, one of the school's leading parent advocates, calls PS 150 "a special community that has developed over the decades." Photo: Carl Glassman/Tribeca Trib

Oct. 14, 2018

UPDATE 10/29/18: On Wednesday, Oct. 24, PS 150 parent representatives and elected officials met with executives from Vornado Realty Trust and Stellar Management. "There was no change in the position" of the landlords, the parents reported. At the end of this article is a copy of the letter sent to the wider PS 150 community about that meeting. 

With just one class per grade and only 186 students, PS 150 in Tribeca is unique among the more than 800 public elementary schools in New York City. Highly regarded academically, the tiny school is viewed as “a beautiful gem,” as one parent put it.

But however special PS 150 may be, its days in the Independence Plaza apartment complex, which has housed an elementary school for more than 40 years, appear to be numbered. The announcement early this month that the building’s owners were refusing to extend their lease beyond this school year caught parents by surprise. Now, along with local leaders, they are starting to fight back.

The Department of Education is planning to relocate the school to the Peck Slip School in the Seaport, a mile away. The Department of Education’s Panel for Education Policy (PEP) is expected to vote on the “co-location” in December.

“No school, no community anywhere in the city should have to move because somebody decides at the last minute not to renew a lease,” said PS 150 parent Jonah Benton. “No transparency, no process and no warning. Simple as that.”

The Department of Education and the School Construction Authority, which negotiates leases, revealed in early October that the school’s lease had expired during the summer. Vornado Realty Trust and Stellar Management, owners of Independence Plaza, had agreed to a one-year extension, making this the last school year in the building.

Elected officials sent a letter on Oct. 9 to the owners requesting a meeting “to continue a conversation that will allow P.S. 150 to stay in a neighborhood in which it has developed strong roots.”  The letter is supported by Community Board 1’s Youth and Education Committee and the District 2 Community Education Council (CEC). As of Friday, Oct. 12, there had been no formal response, according to Paul Leonard, Councilwoman Margaret Chin’s chief of staff.

Spokespeople for Stellar Management and Vornado did not respond to the Trib’s requests for comment.

“[The Department of Education] didn’t notify the community board, they didn’t notify the parents and the principal until just last week,” Leonard said at the Oct. 9 meeting of CB1’s Youth and Education Committee. “It came to us pretty much with an idea of what the relocation plan would be. And we have a lot of questions about that.”

“It really couldn’t be a worse idea,” said Tricia Joyce, the Youth Committee chair. “So we are going to be pushing back.” In a resolution, the committee called on the Department of Education and School Construction Authority to renegotiate the lease, at least until 2022 when a new school building at 42 Trinity Pl.—now slated to become the future home of PS 150—is expected to open.

“Now we say as a group it’s important to us to do all that we can, while we still might have some hope to keep our school intact,” said PS 150 parent Julie Shahroudi, “and make it be just one move that we know about, that we plan for, that we have some say in, instead of two.”

Shahroudi was among a group of PS 150 parents who attended a CEC meeting on Oct. 9 to urge the panel’s support. Other parents that evening were at CB1’s Youth and Education Committee, where the issue was also being addressed.

Michael Mirisola, director of external affairs for the School Construction Authority (SCA), could not give parents much hope. At the CEC meeting, he said his agency had been in “pretty active negotiations for about a year” with the landlord and had received its final rejection “probably a month ago or so.” Countering criticism that parents had been kept in the dark about those negotiations, he said the SCA did not want to unleash a potential backlash. “Most of the time lease negotiations can be very tight, very difficult. There’s money involved. There’s confidential stuff that goes back and forth and our leasing professionals feel it’s not a good idea to go public. Basically you blow a deal.”

“In this case,” he added, “we thought we’d be able to negotiate with them. The last time we were able to negotiate an extension so we thought we’d be more successful. But they have a plan.” Mirisola said the owners did not disclose that plan other than to indicate the space would be an amenity for the building.

Mirisola recalled being asked by the owner representatives what the reaction would be if they did not extend the lease. “I said, ‘You know damn well what’s going to happen.’ I said, ‘You’re big boys. You know what you’re doing.’ And so we tried very, very hard to make them understand.” He paused. They’re adamant.”

Mirisola said the DOE has yet to sign the current lease extension that would commit the city to only the current school year. “I’ve asked our guys to hold off and see what happens,” he said.

“Here is a textbook case,” Nancy Mentesana, mother of a PS 150 kindergartner, told the CEC, “of the voices of the community, the voices of parents, the voices of little tiny children being completely silenced for that of a building that has a high probability, four years from now, of still being vacant.”

Most of the retail spaces in Independence Plaza have been empty for years.

PS 150’s move to the Seaport could threaten the future of Taste of Tribeca, the major fundraiser for that school and PS 234, said Bettina Teodoro, the PS 150 chair of the event. “After 25 years it’s become more than a fundraiser, it’s become a community event,” she told the CEC. “If we’re to move to Peck Slip we would have to have some conversations about Taste of Tribeca and how that would look.” Teodoro has posted an online petition calling for an extension of the lease.

With the vacating next year of a pre-k center on the Peck Slip Schools fourth floor, the DOE anticipates that there will be enough space for PS 150 until its own building opens on Trinity Place, according to Eric Herman from the department’s Office of District Planning. And PS 234, two blocks from PS 150, has “some room to grow” for children whose parents want to keep them in the neighborhood, he said.

“It’s a surprise and it’s a change and it’s not ideal,” said Emily Hellstrom, the Peck Slip School’s PTA president. “But we’re committed to making it work and we’re committed as Peck Slip parents to making PS 150 feel welcome there.”

Jenny Bonnet, PS 150’s principal, said she believes the building’s fourth floor is large enough to accommodate her needs. “I saw the space and I think it will be fine,” she said in an interview. “It’s a beautiful building. It’s not like having your own building but it seems to be sufficient.” Bonnet described Peck Slip Principal Maggie Siena as “incredibly gracious” about the prospects of sharing space. (Siena did not respond to a request for comment.)

Still, Bonnet added, she is happy the parents are “going for it” and opposing the move—"in a polite and productive way.” They are conveying the message, she noted, that the school is more than just a building.

“We’ve been here for 30 years,” the principal said, “and we’re part of the community.”

The following letter is a report on the meeting with executives from Vornado Realty Trust and Stellar Management. It was sent to the PS 150 community from school parents Buxton Midyette, Lisa Midyette, Jonah Benton and Anhsal Purhohit.

           Hi All,

We know there has been a huge amount of anticipation around this meeting between the electeds and Vornado and Stellar, and we are going to try to be as clear and transparent as possible, but it is impossible to convey the full dynamics in writing, so we are going to have another Saturday discussion where we can go deeper into the weeds for those who are interested. We don't have a location for Saturday yet, as our contact at Sarabeth's is out of town, but our thinking on timing is early afternoon. If you are interested in coming either to Sarabeth's or to another location in the immediate vicinity can you reply here and let us know, so we can get a sense of sizing? Thank you!

Let us cut to the chase to say- Stellar and Vornado were very clear that in the context of that setting and in terms of expectations that there was no change in their position. That said, there was a gravitational shift over the course of the meeting, the kind that occurs when parties who have hitherto never engaged directly and had no concrete idea of the other- meet for the first time, and engage in good faith.

That this occurred- with high level representatives from Stellar and Vornado, with 3 elected officials in the room (Margaret Chin, Brian Kavanaugh, and Deborah Glick) and representatives from 2 others (Gail Brewer, Jerry Nadler) also in attendance, along with Community Board 1- is remarkable, perhaps unprecedented.

In this there was a complete affirmation of Lisa's strategy of sugar before vinegar. It is very, very important that we continue to stay positive.

It is also a shame that others could not be present because Anshal hit it out of the park in terms of delivering the message about our schools' uniqueness and identity and our commitment, determination, and rationality. The deck she used to tell this story is here.

Vornado and Stellar GOT it. They gave immediate and deep attention to the presentation and to Anshal, they asked questions, and were completely engaged.

Our electeds were also fully supportive, deeply appreciative of the work we have done to date, and committed to use all levers to find a solution.

In terms of next steps- there are a number of points of specific debriefing and action that we will reach out to particular folks about, action items for the electeds, and action items for Stellar and Vornado. We believe that all parties will pursue their action items in good faith.

In all areas of socialization and interaction we strive to teach our children empathy, to understand how others see a situation, and to find the win-win-win.

Before this meeting, we were in a place where several different parties had no idea how the others saw what winning might mean. Now all are starting to.

So while there is no change in our situation on a superficial level, we see this meeting as having been a successful first step, and we hope through good faith and creativity that we can do more.

Buxton, Lisa, Jonah, Anshal