Unfair trade: New schools do not justify building Boerum Hill high-rises, neighbors say

Unprecedented! Developer seeks super tall tower for Boerum Hill block
Alloy Development

Call it a tower play.

Boerum Hill residents turned out in force on June 28 to voice their opposition to two huge towers with unprecedented density proposed for the edge of their brownstone-lined nabe. Plans for the mega-development include a new elementary school and rebuilt high school, but locals said they should not have to watch skyscrapers rise just to get necessary infrastructure.

“The fact that the proposed plan would bring super-tall buildings is unacceptable, and the community should not be burdened in a trade-off for much needed benefits,” said Howard Kolins, president of civic group the Boerum Hill Association. “We need a lot of things, but towers are not one of them.”

Builder Alloy Development revealed plans in April for 74- and 38-story towers on the triangular block bounded by Flatbush Avenue, Third Avenue, and State Street.

The proposal also included a new 350-seat elementary school and a new building for the already-on-site Khalil Gibran International Academy, which would expand its occupancy from 330 to 350 students.

The city’s Educational Construction Fund — which uses money from developers to build public schools in new developments — hosted the meeting to get community input before it moves ahead with an environmental impact study that will assess how the project will affect the neighborhood.

Residents demanded the city expand the study area from its current perimeter of just 400 feet around the development to a half-mile, in order to better measure the changes the project would bring to a nabe where at least three new high-rises are going up or newly-opened already.

The city needs to approve re-zoning the land for the developer to build higher and with more density than what is currently allowed, and some neighbors said the schools are merely a way to sneak the skyscrapers through, since Alloy will not build the educational facilities without the upzoning.

“It’s nothing but a thinly veiled attempt to pierce the zoning envelope,” said George Canvas, an area resident for 40 years. “It does so by using an existing public school — otherwise a Trojan Horse.”

But the principal of Khalil Gibran — which currently occupies a decrepit former Civil War infirmary — pled a much different case.

He told the room how his students don’t have an auditorium, a gymnasium, or proper electricity, that when anyone uses a copy machine an entire floor blacks out, and that the school can’t have microwaves because they will fry the system.

And he said many of his students come from the Middle East, where they did not have access to schools, and now have to learn in a crummy building.

“Most of my kids come from Yemen, the last time they went to school was sixth grade because their school was blown up,” Winston Hamann said. “I’m losing students every single time I go to a high school fair because we don’t have a gym, or sports, because the building is so run down.”

The president of social service agency the Arab American Support Center also spoke in favor of the project, echoing Hamann’s concerns about the current crumbling building.

Other locals said they understood the need to upgrade Khalil Gibran, but that the city should fund fixing its schools, not rely on private developers’ money.

“Let’s not use the towers as an excuse to right the city’s wrong,” said Fort Greene resident Lucy Koteen. “It’s disgusting the city can’t take care of its schools.”

Alloy’s head honcho, an area resident of 18 years, said his company will continue to converse with community members throughout the re-zoning process, claiming his project will bring many benefits to locals, including below-market-rate housing, schools, and office space.

“Unlike most developers, we only pursue projects that we think will have an enduring, positive impact on their surrounding communities,” said Jared Della Valle. “Our goal here is no different, and to do that, we want to engage.”

Locals can submit comments to the Educational Construction Fund until July 10, after which a document with the study’s final scope will be released to anyone who requests a copy.

Reach reporter Lauren Gill at lgill@cnglocal.com or by calling (718) 260–2511. Follow her on Twitter @laurenk_gill