Finding Space for Downtown Schools

| 15 Feb 2017 | 12:58


Lower Manhattan residents clamoring for new schools to reduce classroom overcrowding will likely be waiting for some time before seeing significant change — there is only one new public school currently in the works below Canal Street, according to the city’s School Construction Authority — but researchers have identified several locations that could one day be home to new public schools.

At the Feb. 13 meeting of Community Board 1’s planning committee, William MacDonald, a professor of architecture at the Pratt Institute, presented 12 potential downtown school sites found in an analysis by the Design of Innovative Learning Environments research group, a joint project between Pratt, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, City College of New York and Syracuse University.

Community Board 1’s school shortage is demographically driven, arising from the massive population influx to Lower Manhattan since 9/11. The area represented by Community Board 1 experienced a 77 percent increase in population from 2000 to 2010, the year of the most recent U.S. Census, an explosion fueled by the development of a large number of new residential buildings. The Financial District has seen the greatest increase of any neighborhood within Community Board 1, bearing more than 50 percent of the population increase over that period.

An area that was home to less than 40,000 residents in 2000 now likely houses around 90,000, according to estimates based on Census data and new residential construction. “It’s basically a small town which has grown up on top of a big town,” MacDonald said.

What’s more, MacDonald’s analysis shows that the residential construction boom — and accompanying inflow of residents — isn’t slowing down, but rather is doing the opposite, meaning that the school shortage problem will remain a problem as population growth continues to accelerate.

One of the locations identified in the study is 42 Trinity Place, the former site of a Syms clothing store that is slated to be replaced by a 40-story mixed-use skyscraper that will devote several floors to a 476-seat elementary school. A spokesperson for the city’s School Construction Authority said that the authority is working with the developer on the schedule for the site and that an expected opening date for the school is not yet in place.

Any new school built on Lower Manhattan land that is currently held in private ownership (which many of the sites identified in the study are) would likely follow the model of the proposal at 42 Trinity Place and come as part of a deal with a developer building a new skyscraper. Community Board 1 member Wendy Chapman, who sits on the planning committee, said that real estate costs have made it all but impossible for the city to find land for standalone schools. “They don’t have the money to buy any property downtown, and so the only way that any schools get built is that the developer carves out a space in the project for a public school,” she said.

As part of an effort to combat this problem, Assemblywoman Deborah Glick introduced a bill in Albany last month that would require firms building non-senior housing developments in the city to pay an impact tax dedicated to the construction of new schools. Glick introduced similar legislation last year that stalled in committee.

The link between new schools and new high-rise residential buildings is a source of anxiety for some downtown residents, who fear that it will cause population growth to continue to outstrip school capacity, even as new schools are built.

In addition to the private sites where schools could potentially be accommodated inside skyscrapers, the research group identified several publicly owned sites that could hold schools, including Pier 14 on the East River, which is now nothing but water, but under current zoning could be built out to hold a school, and the Coast Guard center and adjacent Battery Gardens restaurant in the southeastern corner of Battery Park. The political feasibility of building schools at some of the proposed sites is questionable; the study’s methodology focused not on politics but on identifying non-residential sites underbuilt by 100,000 square feet that could accommodate schools with full gymnasiums.

One publicly owned site identified by the committee that could potentially hold a school-skyscraper combination is the space over the entrance to the Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel, which MacDonald said could be covered and developed into a massive skyscraper complex with square footage comparable to that of the World Trade Center complex. Other potential school sites identified in the study that are currently privately owned include 47-49 Broadway, 43-45 Broadway, 248 Pearl St., and 14 South William St.