A key community panel voted unanimously in favor of a proposed new middle school in DUMBO — if the far-more-controversial building that woud house it also gets approved.
Community Board 2’s youth, education and cultural affairs committee voted 9–0 to support the inclusion of a public middle school within David and Jed Walentas’s Dock Street project. The vote came one night after a contentious first public hearing on the proposal ran so long that a vote was postponed.
The Community Board’s land use committee will cast the larger vote — to approve or deny the building itself — in a rare Saturday morning meeting.
The proposal would then move to the full board in January.
The proposed 18-story building would sit next to the Brooklyn Bridge on Dock Street in DUMBO and comprises a 416-student public middle school, 325 residential rentals (65 of them at below-market rates), and 10,000 square feet of retail space.
Before the committee’s vote on Thursday night, chair Lenny Singletary expressed apprehension about the school’s proximity to the proposed building’s three-story, 465-car garage.
“I do have health concerns about the school sitting on top of a three-story parking lot and those fumes, plus the exhaust that comes from its proximity to the Brooklyn Bridge,” he said.
But committee member Tamara McCaw noted that the committee has been calling for a middle school for years.
“One thing we push for all the time is for a new school, so when an opportunity comes along I feel like we need to support it,” she said.
That support was a far cry from the contentious public hearing on Wednesday night, when more than 80 community members testified. Thirty-eight spoke in support of the Walentases’ project and 49 spoke out against it.
The main arguments of project opponents centered on the building’s size, fears it would ruin views of the historic Brooklyn Bridge and bring too much traffic to the neighborhood, and that the middle school was a “public relations ploy” to “sweeten” a project that, opponents claim, is basically no different from an earlier, and much denser, version that was shot down amid community protests in 2004.
City officials had said earlier in the year that the school system does not need a middle school in DUMBO because there is capacity in other schools throughout the district. But in November, the schools officials changed their mind and included $43 million for the project in their next five-year capital budget. The money would fund the construction of interior classrooms, as the Walentases are only promising raw space, saving the city an estimated $50 million.
Still, that carrot didn’t mask what opponents feel is a stick: an overly large project next to a historic landmark.
Councilman David Yassky (D-Brooklyn Heights) has long opposed the project, and instead has proposed expanding the popular PS 8 school in Brooklyn Heights to include a middle school.
“I just think the bridge is too good to mess around with,” Yassky said. “Obviously we need a school, but I think there are better options.”
Other opponents noted that the middle school is just a “distraction” from the fact Walentas wants to get his project built.
“This project is not about our need for a middle school — that is the distraction,” said City Council candidate Ken Diamondstone, who opposes the project. “It is about a wealthy developer who wants to ignore and compromise our valuable icon.”
But supporters argued that the area desperately needs a middle school, affordable housing, and noted that Walentas could build a much taller hotel — without needing public approval — in the same spot.
“This is not Atlantic Yards,” said Councilwoman Letitia James (D-Fort Greene). “This is a project that I believe will go a long way in Downtown Brooklyn, and will preserve its nature.”
A local middle school principal, Allison Pell, added that a school should be a welcome addition to a neighborhood.
“When you have a school, it brings life to a community — there is artwork in the windows and kids on the street,” Pell said. “You would be crazy not to want to be involved with this project.”
The battle over Dock Street brought memories of the historic fight in 2004 over the earlier version of the project — one that even Jed Walentas — whose father, David, all but created the now-chic neighborhood down under the Manhattan Bridge overpass — now admits had serious flaws and put too much “bulk near the bridge.”
Since then, the Walentases acquired a small piece of adjacent land that allowed the project to be significantly reconfigured so that the 18-story wing is now set back further from this iconic span. Renderings put out by the developer show that the project’s scale is in line with other buildings in the former industrial warehouse zone.
The meeting is the first step in a seven-month public review process because in order to build his project, the area must be rezoned to residential from a manufacturing zone.