Middle school in limbo as state drops develop plans

By Casey Samulski

After a brief period of uncertainty, it seems that there are still no plans for development for 75 Morton St., middle school or otherwise. On Tuesday, a spokesperson for the Empire State Development Corporation e-mailed a statement to The Villager, saying that the status quo will remain in effect at the property.

“We are currently re-evaluating the future use of this building,” the statement said. “For the time being, the New York State Office of Mental Retardation and Developmental Disabilities will continue to utilize the space.”

Efforts to ensure there will be a school in the space appeared stalled after an Aug. 14 meeting arranged by Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer, at which Avi Schick, E.S.D.C. president, said the city was not among the groups responding to the request for proposals, or R.F.P., that E.S.D.C. had issued, and that the city had not sent any other written request for the property.

According to Assemblymember Deborah Glick, offerings for the property were too low for E.S.D.C.’s liking, and it appears development plans for the site are now on hold.

“We got word today, that at the moment, E.S.D.C. seems to have withdrawn 75 Morton St. from the market,” Glick said, speaking Monday evening. “Apparently, whatever bids they received were too low. It’s not clear how they’re going to proceed. I suppose the downside is, right now, there isn’t a deal for a school. But I suppose the upside is that, since there wasn’t a requirement in the R.F.P. that they consider a school, we still have an opportunity going forward to try to engage in some negotiation with the state. So, at the moment, there’s a new landscape regarding 75 Morton St. and I’m hopeful that there’s a way to ensure there’s space for a school in that building.”

The E.S.D.C. spokesperson did not confirm that the property had been pulled off the market, and did not say if or when a new R.F.P. will be issued.

Community Board 2 has been a vocal proponent of the school, along with other members of the community. In a press release, C.B. 2 Chairperson Brad Hoylman expressed his disappointment, but maintained an optimistic outlook on the situation.

“It doesn’t foreclose the community getting the new school in the future,” Hoylman said in a telephone interview on Tuesday. The C.B. 2 release cited “current market conditions and the cost of relocating Metro NY DDSO” as reasons for no development on the site. Hoylman went on to suggest that, if anything, current economic hardships would only make the idea of a school conversion more palatable, citing potential cost savings as incentive. Due to its current design, advocates say, 75 Morton St. would need little renovation to create a working school space, with already-existing features like cafeteria and auditorium space ready for reuse.

Hoylman said he hopes city officials remember their earlier support, such as that which they expressed at an Aug. 6 rally for the school. He was not certain why the city did not enter a bid, but mentioned, “Sometimes the city operates outside of R.F.P. bids.”

Despite recent setbacks, Hoylman reaffirmed C.B. 2’s commitment to getting schools built.

“The community board is not putting all of our eggs in one basket,” he said. “We’re continuing to look for other sites, Pier 40, N.Y.U. and others. It’s crucial that we keep the pressure on.”

Michael Markowitz, vice president of the Community Education Council for School District 2, a P.S. 41 parent and one of the organizers of the Aug. 6 rally, was also optimistic. He said the current situation was an opportunity for more time to impress upon the city and the Department of Education the need for a new middle school.

According to Markowitz, “At multiple C.E.C. meetings over more than a year, we have heard various senior officials of both D.O.E. and School Construction Authority tell parents, ‘We have the resources, but we need you to find us the locations.’” As a civil engineering manager who has previously worked on school reconstruction programs in New York City, Markowitz called 75 Morton St. an “ideal location” that could be easily converted. Nevertheless, no agreement between the state and D.O.E. was reached.

Glick echoed Markowtiz’s frustrations.

“It was somewhat disappointing that D.O.E. indicated to communities that ‘We need more space but we haven’t identified space.’ Then, when people went out and identified space, [the city] was slow to react.”

Regarding how financial considerations between the state and city in the current economic climate might be affecting the property’s disposition, Glick said, “If anything, the downturn in the economy makes [building more schools] all the more important.” She pointed out that with the economy in a stall, more parents who previously considered private schools would have to rely on the public system instead, exacerbating the current overcrowding problem. She went on to charge that the city had been “slow to react” to the changing census, and said that solving school overcrowding was imperative. Without action, she said, “It’s only going to get worse, not better.”

Still, Glick remained positive about the situation.

“I’m always an optimist,” she said. “The building is still there, and therefore there is still an opportunity.”

State Senator Tom Duane also weighed in, saying he would urge D.O.E. and S.C.A. to reach out to the state again and urge the state to be receptive and “see if we can’t come to an agreement.” He described the economy as spelling “uncertain times” for the project, but pointed out that, regardless of the decision, the need for a new school will increase.

“There’s no joy on Morton St. right now,” Duane said. “But I’m never hopeless, and we’re never helpless in the Village.”