Seaport puts school study money where its mouth is


By Julie Shapiro

The planners of the “New Seaport” are getting serious about a school.

After parents and Community Board 1 pushed General Growth Properties to include a school in their overhaul of Pier 17, a General Growth consultant is studying population projections to determine whether a new school is necessary and if so, which grades would be needed.

Eric Greenleaf, chairperson of P.S. 234’s overcrowding committee, recently shared his own population forecast with HR&A Advisors, General Growth’s economic development consultants. Greenleaf has made the case that Downtown’s schools face a crowding crisis in 2009 and that even the new schools at Site 2B and on Beekman St., slated to open in 2010, are not a permanent fix.

Now, at the community’s urging, HR&A is working on its own longer-term projections, focusing on 2015 and 2016, to gauge the need for another school after the two new schools open, Greenleaf said.

“They know a school is important,” Greenleaf said. “[But] they don’t want to incorporate a school and then find out, guess what, a school isn’t needed…. They want to demonstrate that a school really is needed.”

General Growth plans to revamp Pier 17, demolishing the touristy mall and building a 495-foot hotel and condo tower nearby, along with lower-rise retail, a smaller hotel and a large open plaza. Greenleaf and other parents are advocating for the new school as a community amenity.

A General Growth spokesperson confirmed that HR&A has begun the population study to examine the need for a school.

Behind closed doors, parents are getting the impression that a new school is very likely.

“I don’t think there’s any way this project is going in without a school,” said Tricia Joyce, a P.S. 234 parent who attended a private meeting with General Growth consultants and several other parents two weeks ago. “I’m very confident.”

Joyce’s dream school would be K-8, with five classes, or 125 students, in each grade. As she and the other parents explained their concerns about overcrowding, General Growth’s consultants appeared sympathetic, Joyce said.

“They said, ‘I know, we understand, we hear you,’” Joyce said. “They understand we need a school.”

General Growth hasn’t said where in the project the new school could go, but Greenleaf said the clearest option is the base of the mixed-use tower, where General Growth currently plans to put retail.

Greenleaf isn’t sure what size or type of school the district needs, but he said the best location for it might not be in the Seaport at all. Lower Manhattan already has several schools in the north part of the district, with only the new Site 2B school farther south, in southern Battery Park City.

“We may need a school in the middle, halfway between the Battery and Chambers St.,” Greenleaf said. If the community can find a more central site for a new school, Greenleaf hopes General Growth would set aside the money to build it.

The firm did not comment this week on the prospects of adding a school to the plan. Last week, Laurel Blatchford, vice president of development with General Growth, told Downtown Express that General Growth is aware of the community’s desire for a new school.

“This is the biggest issue we’ve heard from the community,” she said. “Consistently, it’s far and away the No. 1 concern.”

HR&A, which has been working with General Growth on the Seaport project for more than two years, is also a consultant to the Pier 40 Partnership, a development group of Downtown parents who are in discussions with the Hudson River Park Trust about their plan to bring three high schools to the Houston St. pier. HR&A officials discussed a possible Pier 40 school with the Dept. of Education last year.

Since General Growth unveiled their plans to the community board earlier this summer, Julie Menin, chairperson of C.B. 1, has said the board would not even consider approving the plans unless they include a school. The board’s approval is advisory, and the project’s future lies in the hands of several city, state and federal agencies.

Menin said there may be other places for a school and there are other problems with General Growth’s plan. The school is not “a magic salve” that will make those other problems disappear, she said. She is particularly concerned about the height of the mixed-use tower. General Growth will return to the community board in September to answer questions about the project, including how the tower will affect sightlines, Menin said.

“The school is extremely, extremely important,” Menin said this week. “But it’s not really an issue of horse trading, per se. [The plan] has to work as a whole for the community.”

She said it was fine for parents to meet with General Growth’s consultants, but she doesn’t want them to think they have to support the plan to get a new school. She plans to meet with the School Construction Authority soon to make a case for a new K-8 school Downtown, regardless of what happens with General Growth.

“We should have a school no matter what,” Menin said. “It’s a basic right, not a privilege.”

Greenleaf and Joyce are optimistic that General Growth and the community can reach a compromise, especially because no one likes the current Pier 17 mall.

“So often, it’s developers against the community,” Greenleaf said. “Here, there’s no question that everyone can be better off with the right plan. It just remains to be seen what that plan is.”