Thursday, April 2, 2009
Mapeth School Vote Expected Thursday
UPDATE: The City Council has approved the DOE's plans to build an 1,100-seat high school in Maspeth. Voting against the plan were Councilmembers Elizabeth Crowley, Tony Avella, Eric Ulrich, James Vacca, Vincent Ignizio, James Oddo, Lewis Fidler, Peter Vallone, Jr., Michael Nelson and Darlene Mealy, according to Crowley's office, which released the following statement after Thursday's vote:
"Let me be clear, I want a school in Maspeth, but I cannot agree with this plan. In an effort to alleviate the traffic and transit concerns raised by the community I asked the Department of Education to compromise on a plan to allow this school to better address the needs and concerns of my community. They did not and as I result I do not support this plan.
As the plan stands now it does not have the approval of the community education council, it does not have the approval of the community board, it does not have the approval of the local civic association. It does not have the full support of local parents. It does not have the support of the local elected officials."
By Conor Greene
City Council is expected to vote today, Thursday, on the Department of Education’s proposal to build an 1,100-seat high school in Maspeth. The plan has been met with stiff opposition from residents who say the area is already too congested and can’t handle another school.
A City Council subcommittee held a hearing Tuesday on the proposal for 1,000 high school seats and 100 special education seats on the site of the former Restaurant Depot at 74th Street and 57th Avenue. Several dozen area residents testified against the proposal, while one Woodside resident spoke in favor of it.
Councilwoman Elizabeth Crowley has said she won’t support the plan unless the city zones the school to ensure neighborhood children can attend it. But, while the councilwoman and the DOE have negotiated for weeks over how the school would be zoned, residents testified that a school shouldn’t be built in the area no matter how it is zoned.
Micah Lasher, a DOE executive director, said that the department has made a “number of substantive changes” to the original plan, including reducing it from 1,650 seats. After much back and forth with Crowley (D-Middle Village), the DOE also agreed to give first priority to students in District 24, followed by districts 27 and 28. That zoning would be “narrower than for any other high school in this administration,” said Lasher.
Crowley wants priority to be first given to students attending five neighborhood schools, to ensure that local children can attend if they wish. Under the DOE’s current plan, a child living across the street from the school has just a one-in-twenty chance of getting a spot in the proposed school, according to Crowley’s office.
In a letter to Crowley, Deputy Mayor Dennis Walcott stressed that the DOT no longer creates “such narrowly” zoned high schools. “Most practically, it is simply not possible to find sites in every individual neighborhood whose students need more school seats, nor is it fiscally responsible to target school construction dollars so narrowly,” he wrote. “In this case, using the Maspeth site for a locally zoned school would not broadly address an overcrowding issue that exists throughout the borough and would not be fair or responsive to all the parents who deserve more high school seats.”
Under Mayor Michael Bloomberg, the DOE has followed a policy of making high schools available to students throughout the city. Zoned high schools “have, historically, contributed to the persistence of a stratified school system and, in turn, an unequal distribution of resources,” wrote Walcott.
However, while the zoning issue has been atresidents who testified Tuesday made it clear they don’t want any school on that site. Many cited two existing schools that are within just three blocks of the Restaurant Depot site and expressed concern over congestion, transportation, parking and crime.
Robert Holden, president of the Juniper Park Civic Association, said “the SCA was asleep at the wheel when they sited the school.” He said that the two existing schools have already contributed to congestion in the area, including along Grand Avenue and on city buses.
“There are locations where a school won’t work,” and the Restaurant Depot site is one, he argued. “We don’t think this site works as a school. If it’s congested now and has no subway, you can’t site a school there.”
Gary Giordano, district manager of Community Board 5 – which first rejected the plan and then agreed to support it provided a number of stipulations are met – said “there are severe problems in this area with the two existing schools.”
Tony Nunziato, a Maspeth resident and businessman, said this proposal flies in the face of years of work to bring proper planning to the area. “It’s called over-saturation,” he said, adding that the school would be “shoe-horned in the neighborhood, and it doesn’t make any sense.” He feared the impact a third school would have on small businesses along Grand Avenue, where groups of students hangout after dismissal.
Woodside resident Marge Kolb, president of the District 24 PTA Presidents’ Council, was the only person to testify in support of the project. She said it is located centrally within District 24, and to existing high schools. “We need this high school,” she implored. “We need seats in Queens [and] this is a good site… We deserve a shot at a local high school too.”
Roe Dario, president of Communities of Maspeth and Elmhurst Together, stressed that the zoning is not the issue. “The issue is the siting – it’s not who goes to it. It’s where it’s located,” she said, noting that 5,000 trucks go down Grand Avenue daily. “Seniors can’t go shopping on Grand Avenue for half the day because we have this staggered dismissal. I just feel it’s going to be too congested.”
Other residents raised issues including flooding in the area, the 104th Precinct’s response time and lack of on-site parking for teachers. Resident John Kilcommons said that seniors are worried about congestion along Grand Avenue, which is the route to Elmhurst Hospital Center.
Jim O’Kane, president of the Maspeth Chamber of Commerce, said he supports keeping this site for commercial use to prevent losing tax revenue and jobs. “Maspeth has done more than its share of providing sites for schools,” he said.
Manny Caruana of Maspeth wondered why the DOE has “dumped thousands of dollars” into the project before gaining City Council approval. He is worried that the school will actually serve more than 1,100 students once it’s open.
Councilman John Liu (D-Flushing) said that the need for high school seats in Queens is the Restaurant Depot site, which may require the use of eminent domain to acquire. Liu said he has been asking the DOE for years to look into a Flushing site owned by Home Depot that has access to many bus and subway lines.
Liu called the DOE’s site selection process a “half-baked action that will only serve families in a limited capacity.” He said the “credibility of the SCA and DOE is severely undermined.” Liu also attempted to brace against potential backlash if the City Council rejects the proposal, which would mark the first time that happened during Bloomberg’s administration. “It is our job to do so to represent our constituents… If the DOE comes up with a halfbaked plan, don’t lay it on us,” he said.
Councilwoman Helen Sears (D-Jackson Heights) noted the lack of public transportation at the Restaurant Depot site and asked the DOE to look into sites in Jackson Heights “that are far more accessible borough-wide.”
Lasher conceded that “this is certainly not going to be the most accessible school in the city.” Still, “we do believe it is a very good site,” he said. Lasher claimed that rejecting the site and forcing the DOE to start over “will set us back a number of years.”
The DOE dismissed the former St. Saviour’s site near Rust Street in West Maspeth as not being suitable because of its location in an industrial area. On Wednesday, a DOE spokesman said that after two years of dialogue between the city and community about this project, the question is no longer about if the site is appropriate.
Right now, the decision that has to be made is not about the site – that conversation has come and gone,” said William Havemann. “Because the financial outlook is less and less positive, it is unclear if this site is rejected what would happen in the next capital plan. It is very possible another school just wouldn’t be built at all, and kids in Maspeth and District 24 would have to continue to go to high schools in other parts of Queens that already are overcrowded.”
By the end of the hearing, it was clear that the DOE is not willing to budge from its current stance regarding zoning. “We’re not willing to make the concessions it sounds like will be necessary,” said Lasher. “At a certain point you have to say you can spend the $80 million elsewhere. But I guess that decision is in your hands… I implore you not to make history by letting council vote this down.”
However, based on testimony provided on Tuesday, it appears a large portion of Maspeth and other area residents are hoping that Crowley does just that. “It’s going to cost $80 million to build this,” said Angelo Raneri. “Let’s build it where it is accessible.”
City Council was expected to vote on the proposal on Thursday afternoon; check theforumnewsgroup.com for updates.