City: We don’t need a middle school in DUMBO — now

The Brooklyn Paper
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A DUMBO developer’s plan to build a controversial 18-story apartment tower with the carrot of a new middle school was handed a setback last Wednesday when a top schools official said that the neighborhood actually doesn’t need a school right now.

The potential middle school would be on the ground floor of developers David and Jed Walentas’s controversial Dock Street tower, but School Construction Authority executive Elizabeth Bergin told a packed room of parents from Brooklyn Heights’ PS 8, “Right now, in this district, we do not identify a need” for a middle school.

If the city does not need a middle school, the Walentases would face a much more difficult path to building their dreamed-of tower, which is opposed by Councilman David Yassky (D–Brooklyn Heights) and the Brooklyn Heights Association because it would block some views of the iconic Brooklyn Bridge.

The Walentases, who have threatened that they can build a much taller tower without city approval, offered the middle school in hopes of making an offer that the cash-strapped Department of Education could not refuse.

If the agency needs such a facility in DUMBO, that is.

Schools in District 13, which includes Brooklyn Heights, Downtown, DUMBO, Vinegar Hill, and part of Fort Greene, currently operate at 66 percent capacity, according to Comptroller William Thompson. The elementary-level PS 8, which is becoming increasingly popular with Brooklyn Heights parents, was the exception, at 118 percent capacity.

“Much of the sharp increase in population that City Planning projects for Brooklyn Heights, Downtown, DUMBO, and Vinegar Hill from 2000 to 2010 has yet to occur,” Thompson said in his May report, which called on the city to be open to deals like the one being offered by the Walentases.

But at the May 28 meeting, some parents worried that the construction of the 45,000-square-foot, 300-seat school in DUMBO would hurt their chances to have a school built elsewhere within the district in the future.

In response, Bergin said the construction agency will release its next five-year construction and financial plan in November and the agency is studying “pockets” of overcrowding within school districts instead of overall crowding. At that time, a more final decision will be made about the location and possibility of a new school.

Bergin said the city is “very interested in this process” on Dock Street.

Jed Walentas, who presented the project at the meeting, said his company, Two Trees Management, would invest $8 million to $10 million to build the school’s floor and outer walls, though the city would have to build out the classrooms themselves. The Department of Education would then rent out the space for $1, according to one proposed deal.

Educators are intrigued by the idea of a school within a residential building.

“Schools really create community, and having your kids in your neighborhood, going to school in your neighborhood, [and] having kids on the sidewalks, that creates a warm feeling in an urban landscape,” said Allison Pell, principal at the Urban Assembly Academy of Arts and Letters, a new middle school in Fort Greene.

Noting DUMBO’s vast arts community, Pell added, “How great would it be to think DUMBO was a place where education and the arts were aligned and intertwined?”

It could be very great — if PS 8 parents decide to get on board.

“We have members on both sides of this very, very passionate debate,” said Dan Rosenbaum, chairman of the PS 8 PTA’s middle school committee.

“It’s one thing to not look a gift horse in the mouth, but you want to be sure that it’s not going to bite you,” he said.

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Reader Feedback

Marla from Fort Greene says:
This article significantly misrepresents the visual impact of the proposed 210 story building, misunderstands the built environment in which the building would be placed, and leaves out all mention of the problems created by rapid increases in density within the DUMBO neighborhood. It also fails to acknowledge the tenant/landlord relationship between the Brooklyn Paper and Two Trees Management.

- The building would be enormous when compared to the other buildings surrounding the bridge (unless we consider the lovely Verizon building on the Manhattan side!). The sketches provided by Two Trees encourage comparison with buildings (Jay Condo, Beacon Condo) that are within DUMBOs interior and nowhere near the bridge. This is not a relevant comparison.
- The building would indeed corrupt views from within DUMBO, from the state and city parks, from the bridge walkway and roadway, and from Manhattan. Once lost these historic views will not be recovered.
- The neighborhood is going to have difficulty supporting continued large scale development, as traffic, parking problems, and pollution will continue to increase. This will ripple out to affect the roadways leading into the area, such as the bridge ramps, BQE, and Cadman Plaza.
- The notion that this building will change the homogenous population of DUMBO seems misguided, given that the proposed “affordable housing” is geared to those with a minimum family income of $80k/year.

While some of this paper's reporting on the Dock Street site has been accurate, its reporters have not followed up on some key questions:
- Why did the School Construction Authority allocate money for a school at Dock Street without a hearing? It would be helpful if The Brooklyn Paper could follow up on its 11/13 article that touches upon the SCA issue.
- If the SCA previously said that no additional middle school room was needed in the district, why have they changed their position?
- If a 300 seat middle school is eventually built in DUMBO, how are the slots likely to get apportioned to students within and outside the district? Who will really benefit from this school?

Also, it does seem a bit questionable that the Brooklyn Paper comes out with an editorial (12/11/08 in support of a project that will benefit their landlord. Particularly since this support seems to be based on the paper’s assertion that the new building is “a victory for the DUMBO community” because “the system worked” and “A flawed project was rejected, and the developer went back to the drawing board and returned with a better design that includes substantial public benefits.”So in other words, if a developer suggests a really crappy development that is rejected by neighbors and public officials alike, but then makes a new suggestion that is slightly less crappy and includes “carrots” for key constituencies, this is “a victory”? This hardly seems like a strong reason to support an enormous and unwanted building.
Jan. 10, 2009, 2:22 pm

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