BY ANNA SPIVAK & MEAGHAN MCGOLDRICK
Plans to site a Universal Pre-K program at the busy corner of 86th Street and Gatling Place were bashed at not one, but two meetings on Wednesday, January 21.
The School Construction Authority (SCA) presented plans for the proposed 108-seat school to both Community Education Council 20 (CEC20) and Community Board 10’s Zoning & Land Use and Youth Services, Education & Libraries Committees, only to be met with strong opposition.
“I just don’t see this being a feasible place for a Pre-K school,” said local resident Mary Maguire, citing concerns with the location’s traffic, noise, pollution and proximity to the Gowanus Expressway. “The Gowanus gets backed up daily, multiple times – morning and evening – and it’s a truck route.”
“As somebody who lives on the block of an off ramp and who has kids, I think [this site] is a very, very dangerous place for a four-year-old,” said CEC20 member Sheila Higgingson. “I’ve taught preschool, I’ve had children in this neighborhood, I grew up in this neighborhood and I’ve had friends killed by cars on these streets. No matter what [precautions are taken], the drivers don’t care. They are trying to get to work – they do not care.”
In response to these concerns, SCA representatives—present at both meetings—stressed that a safety study to address traffic issues is currently underway.
“When we were notified of the concern, we hired a traffic consultant,” explained Frederick Maley, director of external affairs for SCA at CB10’s joint committee meeting. “They’re going to do field analysis, [assessing] various time periods, and then [provide] recommendations on how to mitigate those concerns with traffic – especially right-turning cars coming off the expressway.”
“It will be a thorough traffic study that takes a number of months to complete,” added SCA’s Chief of Staff Melanie La Rocca, noting that often the SCA works with DOT to alleviate such issues. “It will be a process and the recommendations that come out of that will actually inform our decision.”
Though, residents at both meetings cited concerns besides traffic.
“When it was a community board and if you go there right now – there’s always been graffiti on the side walls, so it’s a building that is easily vandalized,” said Ridge resident John Quaglione, speaking on behalf of both himself and State Senator Marty Golden. “There have also been incidents of homeless individuals – I hate to say it – standing at the corner of that exit, approaching cars and begging for money. You have a lot of elements there that make it an unnecessary spot in our opinion.”
When asked why the site was even being considered, the SCA cited a need for seats and the opportunity to revamp an unused building.
“We have an opportunity to transform a site that is sitting dormant,” said La Rocca. “It is a city-owned site and it’s being totally underused given that it’s vacant. We also have an ability to get a real meaningful number of seats here.”
However, people like CEC20 President Laurie Windsor doubt those seats are even necessary.
“I respectfully disagree about the need for seats,” Windsor said. “We did not fill seats this year and we have three new Pre-K sites coming [down the pipeline]. I really don’t see the urgency.”
Still SCA contends that the need is there and the seats will eventually fill.
To that end, Councilmember Vincent Gentile, who attended both meetings and penned a letter earlier that day to SCA President Lorraine Grillo, suggested other sites be considered and that a safety plan be made available as soon as possible and publicly before the next round of comments.
“What we really need to see—as a community—is that safety plan presented to us before we take a position,” said Gentile. “I think all of us know what the dangers are at this site and whether or not those can be addressed is something for the experts to do. But, I think we need to see that plan. As alternative sites [for a Pre-K], I have brought up The Church of the Generals and also another space that has recently come onto the market it – the parking lot across from Brooklyn Market on 81st and Third. Those are the alternative sites that need to be looked at before we can move forward.”
“We are happy to continue the conversation about these sites,” La Rocca responded, “and if there are ways where we can bring them all on line for additional capacity, that would be tremendous and a home run for us because we need every seat we can get in this neighborhood.”
After all was said and done, CEC20 passed a unanimous resolution to oppose the site and committee members present at CB10’s joint meeting unanimously opposed the site as well.
CB 10 members took their opposition one step further at a Monday, January 23 full board meeting, where they voted unanimously not only to oppose the site but also to request that no further funding be invested in the study of it.
“It’s going to cost money to do a traffic study and I think if you just look at it, [you will see that] it’s almost ridiculous even to think about it,” said board member Steve Harrison noting that the ramp adjacent to the site is one that unnerved members of the community board back when Board 10 occupied the building.
Fellow board member Brian Kaszuba agreed.
“The frustrating part about this process is that the community is asked to decide without seeing a design,” he said. “Even if the SCA were to come back with a great design, we don’t feel that anything they could come up with would be good, so any study would cost money and would be pointless.”
This story was updated on Wednesday, January 27 to reflect developing information.