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.