They didn’t do their homework.
City officials proposing to build a school on Caton Avenue near E. Seventh Street in Kensington were blindsided at a public hearing when the owner of half the site said that he wants to finish his own stalled residential project on the same land.
“This is the first we have been aware of it,” Tami Rachelson of the School Construction Authority told Community Board 7.
For the Department of Education, the news could be not only an embarrassment, but also a financial blow.
If developer Robert Cherry gets the go-ahead to restart his controversial project — which was halted when the city downzoned the area in 2009 — the city would have to pay considerably more to acquire the property.
“We want to build,” Cherry said, though board members and residents want just the opposite.
No residents spoke in support of the 17-unit apartment building, and the board’s land-use committee voted unanimously to advise the city to reject the zoning variance.
“I think we would set a bad precedent if this went through,” said CB7 member Randy Peers.
Others were suspicious that Cherry wants to build, surmising instead that he just wants the zoning change to increase the value of his land.
John Burns, the chairman of CB7’s Land-Use Committee was surprised that Cherry didn’t show off an actual proposal.
“Considering the history of the site, I would have imagined he would have made a greater effort to convince the community and the committee that this was a bona fide application,” Burns said.
A spokesman for the Department of Education said that the agency was a bit hoodwinked by Cherry.
“We researched the ownership of the property and notified the owner of our interest in the property,” said spokesman Jack Zarin-Rosenfeld. “The property owner indicated that the property was available for sale, but did not tell us — and was not under any obligation to tell us — that he was pursuing” a zoning variance for his own use.
No one at the hearing questioned the need for a new school, but some residents said that the 750-seat, kindergarten-through- eighth-grade school would need its own zoning change in order to be built.
“Everybody should just live by the new rules,” said Mandy Harris. “Why have zoning if it can be overridden?”
School Construction officials said they try to comply with zoning, “but there are instances when it’s just not possible,” said agency spokesman Kenrick Ou.
Residents also fret about traffic, given the narrowness of local streets and the potential danger of building a school on a truck route.
Rachelson admitted that the city sometimes has “backed away” from sites “because of safety issues.”