Church Street School Struggles to Stay in Community It Has Long Served

At the Church Street School for Music and Art, Joanna Kopp, center, teaches music and movement to preschoolers. At right is the preschool teacher, Amanda During. More than 1,000 students, including adults, take classes at the school. About half of them are instrumental students. Photo: Carl Glassman/Tribeca Trib

Jul. 20, 2016

Tribeca’s Church Street School for Music and Art is struggling to find a future in the well-heeled neighborhood it can no longer afford.

That is the message that Lisa Ecklund-Flores, Church Street’s director and co-founder, is sending to the community that her school has served for 25 years.  In a series of recent “town halls” with school parents and others, she has been sounding the alarm and looking for solutions to a hard reality: How to keep the non-profit institution alive in a sea of inflated commercial real estate prices. The school’s lease ends in five years.

“Five years is not a very long time to try to build community awareness, ignite political officials and create a strategic plan on how to get from here to there,” said Ecklund-Flores, 60, whose school has grown from a 1,200-square-foot walk-up on Church Street with 150 students in 1990, to its present 10,000 square-foot home at 74 Warren St. with more than 1,000 students.

“My commitment to the school is undying and I know lots of people in the community think the school is really special,” she added. “So it’s time for everyone who cares about Church Street School to come together and figure out how we’re going to keep it around for the next generation.”

“Unique ideas and perspectives,” she said, have come from her public meetings, which began with a lesson in the school’s troubles. Church Street School, she explained, is struggling to pay its current annual rent of $540,000 on a budget of $2 million, plus payments on its last expansion and property tax passalongs.

“For a nonprofit community school for the arts it’s untenable,” she said, noting that hers is the only such school in Manhattan that does not own its space.

“There’s a disconnect in our function and the neighborhood that we’re in,” said the board’s vice chair, Judy Levine. “It’s a relief to actually be talking about it in that way, as opposed to simply scrambling to raise more funds, which of course we’re trying to do. But on an annual basis we just can’t do it, and nobody could do it as a not-for-profit.”

Adrian Kunzle, the board’s chair, called the task of making ends meet from year to year, “nerve wracking.”  But with the new strategizing, he said, he has grown more confident that the school will eventually find a permanent home.

“If you asked me a year ago,” he said, “I’d have told you we don’t know how we’re going to accomplish it.”

The search for a new home, or at least the scouting forays into the unwelcoming world of real estate below Canal Street, has begun. Rents for affordable spaces (or those closest to affordable) that the school has been shown are in sub-basements, Ecklund-Flores said. The purchase price of a space is roughly estimated at $8.5 million.

“Can you imagine the fundraiser I’m going to have to have to raise eight-and-a-half million dollars?” she said.

Still, Ecklund-Flores and several board members told the Trib that they are now leaning towards a campaign to purchase their next home rather than rent it. There would be real estate tax savings, financing advantages and the potential for city grants. And the idea of a permanent new home, they said, would be a more attractive prospect for school parents with money and connections.

“We live in an arguably fairly wealthy community, a very strong base of parents,” Kunzle said. “While we are not typically the first thing that their charitable giving is aimed towards we believe that a capital campaign for a new home would be something we could run to raise a reasonable amount of funds to help along the way.”

Or, as Ecklund-Flores put it, “It’s a very resourceful community. Lots of powerhouses in this community.”

In the town halls, participants have urged Ecklund-Flores to seek financial help from major local corporations and developers for whom a community cultural resource like Church Street School may also have dollar value.

“For the people who are making money from real estate, the people for whom Tribeca is a potential asset, well, this is an asset, too,” said Celia Hartmann, a participant in one of the town halls whose now-grown daughters attended the school years ago. “The neighborhood as a whole benefits from organizations like Church Street. And they create the communities that other people then find attractive—and monetize.”

Ecklund-Flores acknowledges that money matters and fundraising do not come easily to her. (“It’s never been comfortable for me to ask for money. I wasn’t raised that way. I was actually raised that you shouldn’t ask for money.”) At a town hall meeting, the facilitator, Brewster Smith, pointed out that Ecklund-Flores, who still enjoys teaching at the school and leading a senior chorus, hates dealing with numbers and finances.

“It’s rotting my brain,” she exclaimed with a laugh. “I want to play the piano!”

It was, after all, a love of music and teaching that prompted her and Lauri Bailey to start the school in 1990, aided in the beginning by just two other teachers.

“We didn’t have a business plan, we didn’t plan for the future. We just started doing the thing,” Ecklund-Flores recalled. “And now I’m growing up, and trying to grow up fast enough to solve the problem.”