Residents say ‘no’ to proposed school rezoning

Elizabeth Rose, director of portfolio planning at the D.O.E., at a public hearing held Tuesday night at P.S. 234 to discuss the city’s proposed rezoning plan for Lower Manhattan. Downtown Express photo by Aline Reynolds

BY ALINE REYNOLDS  |  When Tribeca resident Matthew Foster moved to the community in 2008, he never dreamed he’d have to send his two young children to a public school outside of the neighborhood.

“I live in this community, and I want to send my kids to school in this community,” said Foster.

The rezoning plan proposed by the city’s Department of Education, however, would assign Foster’s kids to P.S. 3 in Greenwich Village once they reach kindergarten.

“I don’t think it’s a good idea at all,” said Foster at  a hearing held at P.S. 234 on Tuesday night. “I had to look up P.S. 3 on a map. I have no idea about that school.”

Foster is one of a number of neighborhood families that object to the proposed zoning changes for Lower Manhattan. The purpose of the rezoning is to create a zone for the new Peck Slip elementary school and to realign the sizes of the zones according to the capacity of each school. The new zones would divide the neighborhood of Tribeca, such that the Fosters and other families who live north of North Moore Street would be assigned to P.S. 3 in Greenwich Village rather than to P.S. 234, their local neighborhood school.

Another notable change to the current zones is that children who live in Gateway Plaza and are currently in the P.S. 89 zone would be reassigned to P.S. 276. The proposal, under consideration by the District Two Community Education Council, will be finalized by the end of the year.

“No matter where the zone lines are drawn, somebody will be in a different zone than they had expected to be,” said Elizabeth Rose, director of portfolio planning at the D.O.E. “We know that’s painful and we know that’s unexpected.”

The department is doing its best, Rose continued, to retain students in the schools they’re zoned for. But that statement didn’t satisfy parents such as Melissa Goldsmith, who said she would be considering private schools if her pre-school-aged child is zoned for P.S. 3 starting next year.

“There’s no way he can walk there,” said Goldsmith. “I don’t want him really crossing Canal Street during Holland Tunnel traffic hours.”

At the latest school overcrowding task force meeting held by Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver last Tuesday, Sept. 27, Rose also announced that P.S. 1 and P.S. 126 in Chinatown have a collective capacity of 350 to 370 additional seats, and that they’ll therefore serve as alternative opportunities for waitlisted Downtown students in the coming years.

P.S. 1 Principal Amy Hom, however, contended that her school could only hold one additional group of kindergarteners. The D.O.E., she noted, is counting cluster rooms, offices and even closets as classroom space into their capacity projections.

“Technically, I could open one more class in kindergarten, because each year would need an additional classroom,” said Hom. “If it becomes overcrowded here, it’s not going to be pleasant.”

Both proposals fail to address the long-term dilemma of the lack of elementary seats in Downtown schools, according to Eric Greenleaf, a member of the task force and a business professor at New York University.

“Their overcrowding solution is to overcrowd more schools,” said Greenleaf.  “It kind of ignores a lot of long-established neighborhood boundaries, and also doesn’t solve the problem, which is that more schools are needed.”

Part of the problem, Greenleaf elaborated, is that the D.O.E. lacks the necessary projections to plan ahead. “When you do school rezoning, you have to take a look at enrollments in the future, to see if the zone is sufficient to meet the demands in the future,” he said. “The D.O.E. has absolutely no forecast for what they think enrollments will be in the next three-to-four years.”

Overcrowding in Lower Manhattan schools, meanwhile, will continue to worsen every year, as the district will be short 1,200 or 1,3000 seats, according to Greenleaf’s data.

“At this rate, in a few years, every single Downtown school will have a waitlist — even the incubator Peck Slip school,” said Greenleaf.

Rezoning a handful of blocks in Tribeca to P.S. 3 is not sufficient to accommodate the hundreds of incoming school children, echoed P.S. 234 parent Tricia Joyce.

“One cannot construct 20,000 new apartments without building new schools. It’s simple math,” said Joyce. “The outdated planning methods used by the D.O.E. have failed, over and over again for a decade. It is time to accept these failures and build new schools concurrent with residential construction.”

The task force was nonetheless pleased to hear that more space has opened up in One Peck Slip, which they’re hoping will prompt the D.O.E. to expand the school beyond its slated capacity of 476 seats.

The U.S. Postal Service has tentatively selected 116 John St. as the future site for their retail operations currently situated in the Peck Slip building, according to Hank Burmeister, manager of the Northeast Facilities Service Office of the U.S. Postal Service. The new post office, located only a couple of blocks south of Peck Slip, would be approximately the same size as the current 3,000-square-foot store and offer similar services. Burmeister said it could open as early as spring 2012.

Meanwhile, the Postal Service is contemplating moving its delivery branch to 90 Church St., across from the World Trade Center site.

“It’s an accommodation that we’re very happy about,” said Community Board 1’s Youth and Education Committee Chair Paul Hovitz.

The additional space in the Peck Slip building, Hovitz said, “enables the D.O.E. to comply with our request to increase the new school’s capacity to 600-plus students.”

Silver echoed this sentiment in a Sept. 22 letter to NYC Schools Chancellor Dennis Walcott.

“Given the continued dire need for new elementary school classroom seats in our Downtown community, I strongly urge you to use that extra space to expand the size of the planned 476-seat school,” Silver wrote. “We face a school overcrowding crisis in Lower Manhattan for the foreseeable future, and we must not miss this excellent opportunity to create additional school seats to help address that crisis.”

The D.O.E. declined to comment.

The plans, however, have yet to be finalized, according to Burmeister. While the Peck Slip building has officially been transferred to the School Construction Authority, he said, the D.O.E. has agreed to pay U.S.P.S. half-a-million dollars for renovations to its existing facilities should the company decide to stay put.

“We are entitled to some type of monetary value for our improvements if we were going to go back to the Peck Slip location,” said Burmeister. “And, further discussions have to take place with the S.C.A. if we indeed move out permanently.”

The agreements, Burmeister said, would be finalized by the end of the year.