Did city lie about its Dock Street plans?

Walentas’s Dock Street school moves forward
Beyer Blinder Belle

The School Construction Authority was not being honest last June when it stated publicly that it did not “identify a need” for a new middle school in Brooklyn Heights or DUMBO because the comment came while the agency was in the midst of negotiating with a DUMBO developer to build just such a school.

That’s the most stunning news buried in dozens of pages of just-released documents made public by the SCA after a freedom of information request by Councilman David Yassky (D-Brooklyn Heights), who is an opponent of a project by David and Jed Walentas of Two Trees Management to build an 18-story tower and public middle school on Dock Street near the Brooklyn Bridge.

“It’s always troubling when government agencies, which are accountable to the public, are doing one thing in private yet saying something else in public,” said Yassky, referring to School Construction Authority executive Elizabeth Bergin’s comment, reported by The Brooklyn Paper, that the agency saw no need for a middle school even as it was negotiating with Two Trees to build just such a school.

Yassky cited a May 20 letter from Two Trees to the School Construction Authority which provided the development company’s “best and final offer for the Dock Street DUMBO middle school.”

The letter, signed by Jed Walentas, begins, “We appreciate your continued interest in working with us to develop a new public middle school.”

Former City Councilman Ken Fisher, who was hired by Two Trees to help steer the controversial project through the ongoing public approval process, said that Two Trees’ May 20 letter is no smoking gun.

“They said what they said publicly because they were not fully on board with us at that time,” he said. “They were still negotiating with us. They wanted us to give them our best offer and then see if we had support for the project. Only after we had done that, they said OK” in late 2008.

The just-released documents — mostly e-mails from School Construction Authority officials to Two Trees, plus entertainingly candid internal documents — include plenty of less-explosive correspondence that nonetheless bolster a case made by Dock Street opponents that the School Construction Authority did not fully consider alternative sites for a middle school besides the Walentas’s proposal.

The agency has long said that it has fully considered all alternative sites for the school that have been suggested by Yassky, including expanding the current K-5 program at PS 8 on Hicks Street into a K-8 school.

But the documents reveal that the School Construction Authority has only looked at two alternatives: PS 8 and the former police precinct on Poplar Street.

And an internal SCA e-mail dated Dec. 8 casts doubt on the depth of the agency’s analysis of a third site. In the e-mail, from Lorraine Grillo to Kenrick Ou, Grillo dismisses Yassky’s request that the agency consider a newly discovered alternative at 205 Water St.

“David Yassky referred this guy to me because he has property in Brooklyn on Water Street between Bridge and Jay,” the memo said. “Now I know that if we don’t do the Walentas project that we don’t really want to do anything else over there, but I think we have to follow up on this just so we can say that the Walentas project is such a good deal.”

Again, Fisher dismissed the significance of the Grillo memo.

“There are other documents in the package that show that they did evaluate proposals submitted to them and that they rejected them because they simply were not as good as our proposal,” Fisher said.

“It’s disappointing that anyone would say that the SCA hadn’t considered alternatives. They considered them and rejected them. In the case of the Dec. 9 memo, the SCA knows that any other developer was going to charge them for land and for the core and shell of the school. Two Trees is not charging for either.

“That makes all the other alternatives less attractive to SCA than Two Trees,” he said.

Yassky disagreed: “My reading of that memo is that they have no interest in fully considering other alternatives. They have not proven that they have looked seriously enough at Water Street or the PS 8 expansion.”

Yassky was reminded that Two Trees says it offering the school for free — a savings that the SCA has said is equivalent to nearly $50 million in construction costs.

“Two Trees is paying for the core and shell of the school,” Yassky said. “The SCA still has $43 million in its budget for a school. All I’m saying is that if they put out a request for proposals, they might find a developer willing to do it for even less than Walentas.”

The 205 Water St. site is owned by Harry Kotowitz, who has repeatedly declined to reveal the extent of his offer to the School Construction Authority. Fisher said that Kotowitz’s offer would cost the SCA more money because “he’s not offering anything for free like Two Trees is.”

Others pointed out that in 2006, Kotowitz was widely criticized — including by David Yassky and the anti-Walentas DUMBO Neighborhood Association — for tearing down the historic building that once stood at that site.

Will Havemann, a spokesman for the Department of Education, said the agency is “doing its due diligence” at the 205 Water St. site, but added that “at this time, we still believe that the Dock Street project is the most cost-efficient proposal.”

In other interesting news from the document dump:

• The full extent of the Two Trees lobbying campaign becomes a bit clearer. Several times over the past six months, Jed Walentas or Laura Bailyn wrote directly to School Construction Authority officials to urge them to get on the same page as the company.

On Nov. 24, for example, Bailyn wrote to a variety of city officials to urge the School Construction Authority to publicly repudiate Yassky’s call for a middle school at the PS 8 site.

“The Department of Education and the SCA need to make clear to the community that Dock Street is the only site under consideration … and only because of the Two Trees donation is there even the possibility of the school. … If this is not done, the PS8 or other alternative will gain currency.”

A month later, a Two Trees lobbyist, Joni Yoswein, told Jed Walentas that she hoped the School Construction would “do the right thing and shut down this option publicly.”

Walentas forwarded — most likely by accident — Yoswein’s e-mail to School Construction Authority President Sharon Greenberger, who wrote back, “We have said consistently that we support this project [and that] a K-8 addition at PS 8 is not feasible.”

Then, later in the day, though, Greenberger sent an e-mail to a member of her staff that reflected her frustration with Two Trees’ demands.

“How dare they state ‘the SCA should do the right thing,’” she wrote. “This is their project to carry, not ours.”

The upshot of the massive document dump remains unclear, however. Walentas’s Dock Street project has been generating support during the public review process. It has already been approved by Community Board 2 and Borough President Markowitz, though his support was conditioned on setting back the residential portion of the building further from the Brooklyn Bridge.

The City Planning Commission is expected to approve the project, setting up a frenzied debate in the City Council, where Yassky and colleague Bill DeBlasio oppose it and Councilwoman Letitia James (D–Fort Greene) supports it.