Hundreds rally for a new Morton St. middle school


By Albert Amateau

Nearly 300 West Side education activists rallied in front of the state-owned building at 75 Morton St. last week and cheered as elected officials and community board members demanded that the seven-story building become a local middle school.

The building formerly housed the New York State Office of Mental Retardation and Developmental Disabilities. The Empire State Development Corporation decided early this year to put the building on the block, and the state request for proposals, or R.F.P., is due from prospective developers on Aug. 13.

But in the school district, which includes the West Village, where schools are overcapacity and class size is beyond recommended limits, parents and community activists have been demanding adaptive reuse of a building that appears to be ideal for a school.

The good news that cheered neighbors at the Aug. 6 rally was that the city Department of Education had formally asked the E.S.D.C. to consider transferring the building to the city for uses as a middle school.

“We’ve told E.S.D.C. that we’re interested in acquiring the building for a school, and we’re waiting to hear back from them,” Margie Feinberg, a Department of Education spokesperson, said in a telephone interview on Aug. 7.

A week earlier, E.S.D.C. said it was aware of community interest for a school in the building, but gave no official indication on the prospects for a school.

While the state does not have to sell the property to the highest bidder, neighbors are anxious, feeling that the neighborhood could be rezoned to encourage residential development, which would inflate land values.

“We’re here today for one reason,” said Brad Hoylman, chairperson of Community Board 2, at the Aug. 6 rally. “We want a middle school at 75 Morton St.”

Referring to the West Village’s two public elementary schools, he noted that P.S. 41 is at 112 percent of capacity and P.S. 3 is at 111 percent capacity.

“The city expects another million people in Manhattan by 2030, and we have to do something about that now,” Hoylman added.

City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, who represents the Village and Chelsea, pointed out that the residential building boom in the neighborhood would bring more people, with more kids who deserve to go to public schools appropriate for the 21st century.

“It’s complicated,” Quinn said regarding the hoped-for transfer of the property for school uses. “But the issue has been before the schools chancellor and E.S.D.C. We will be standing here next year welcoming students to the building.”

An upbeat state Senator Tom Duane proposed a cheer: “We’re supportin’ a school on Morton. We need the space and here’s the place.”

Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer, who issued a report, “Crowded Out,” on the need for new schools in Manhattan early this year, said that the city must plan for schools whenever a new residential building is proposed. Stringer recognized the work done by local parents who organized the Public School Parent Advocacy Committee.

“Parent power is making changes,” he said.

Assemblymember Deborah Glick recalled that when she learned in January that the state was considering selling the building, she proposed that reusing it as a public school would make more sense than selling it to a private developer for cash to buy private property for a school. She suggested that the R.F.P. for the site should make the inclusion of a school a condition for redevelopment.

“This building has many features that make adaptive reuse a better deal. It even has a potential schoolyard,” Glick said.

Katy Bordonaro, a leader of West Village Houses complex a block west of the building, said it was important for 75 Morton St. to remain as public property.

“We’re concerned too about open space,” she said, noting that the lot at the corner of Greenwich and Barrow Sts. north of 75 Morton St. was originally supposed to be recreation space for the students in the building. The space, now used for parking, would make an ideal schoolyard, she said.

Miguel Acevedo, leader of the Robert Fulton Youth for Tomorrow in Chelsea and a member of Community Board 4, said that neighborhood children are tired of overcrowded classrooms.

“I’m here to support the Village,” he said, adding, “We should be here [at 75 Morton St.] when we open the doors to a new school.”

Built in 1919 for Fisher, a maker of toys and scientific instruments, 75 Morton St. was acquired by New York State in 1967. The building complies with standards set by the Americans with Disabilities Act, which require handicap access.

“The ceilings are high, perfect for a school,” said Andrew Berman, director of the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation.

“It’s a cost-effective way to get a new school now, rather than have to pay for it later,” said Robert Ely, a P.S. 3 parent and leader with Irene Kaufman and Ann Kjelberg of the parent-based Public School Parent Advocacy Committee.

The committee, along with Community Board 2, G.V.S.H.P., United Federation of Teachers, Village Independent Democrats, Village Reform Democratic Club, Downtown Democratic Club and Disabled in Action, were among the sponsors of the rally.

Michael Markowitz, vice president of the Community Education Council of School District 2 also spoke at the rally and demanded that the state “cancel its fire sale and transfer the building to the city for a school.” The council, successor of the former community school board, planned to hear testimony on 75 Morton St. at its Wed., Aug. 13, public meeting at 333 Seventh Ave. Markowitz said.