Tensions were high Wednesday night at a packed public hearing about the nearly 600-seat middle school slated for the old Nathan’s lot on 86th Street.
The meeting – held at P.S. 264 in Bay Ridge, a once-controversial site itself – pitted the audience (made up of mostly neighbors of the lot) against a pair of representatives from the School Construction Authority (SCA), who were there in conjunction with Community Board 10 to collect testimony to help guide the school’s design process.
District 20 – which encompasses Bay Ridge, Dyker Heights and portions of Sunset Park and Boro Park – is among the city’s most overcrowded, with a shortfall of nearly 11,000 seats. That statistic, CB 10 Education Committee Chair Barbara Vellucci contended, more than justifies the need for another school in the board’s catchment area, which includes Bay Ridge and Dyker Heights.
“It is a well-known fact that there is a need for schools in our district,” Vellucci said. “All of our current schools are over-utilized.”
However, residents rejoined, 650 86th Street is simply not the place for one, citing pedestrian safety, congestion and parking.
One resident, Ann Fawcett-Ambia, brought her own hand-drawn map, which highlighted, in red, areas like the entranceway to Gowanus Expressway, the nearby Ford dealership and a gas station at an already crowded intersection.
Fran Vella-Marrone, president of the Dyker Heights Civic Association, seemed to sum up the feeling in the room by saying, “We all know the problem. We need a school, just not at this location.”
SCA spokesperson Tamar Smith affirmed, though, that the site has already been acquired and the question that remains is not whether or not to build the school, but rather, how best to build it. “We are going to work this plan,” she told the crowd, adding earlier that, “While siting schools in District 20 is essential, it’s not just at any cost.”
Smith contended that the schools the SCA has built “do work,” and that the SCA does “work in partnership with agencies [like the Department of Transportation] to make them successful and safe.”
However, many residents were wary of trusting that the DOT will take care of it – something CB 10 District Manager Josephine Beckmann told this paper she understands given past requests from residents and unfinished business with the area.
“I think there’s a lot of anger about traffic in the area and I understand that, especially when so many of these residents have asked for help from the DOT in the past,” she said after the meeting.
However, Beckmann stressed, it’s often a different story when a school is involved. “What we’ve learned from other school sitings is that the DOT does come out and that they do have a school safety team that really makes sure these things are going to happen,” she said. “But I do think that the sooner they come out, the better to examine this area in particular.”
Beckmann also said she understands the desire for a supermarket at the site, something that has also been brought up with respect to the location, citing the recent closure of the Associated Market at 86th Street and Gelston Avenue. “I absolutely get it,” she said, “but at the end of the day, we also need new schools.”
There was some support for the site Wednesday night, however – the final comment of the evening coming from a local resident and father of twin girls who, he said, would greatly benefit from the proposed school.
“Where are we gonna put the kids? What’s your solution?” he demanded, the audience responding with jeers and boos.
The crowd was so raucous that at one point Vellucci and board Chair Doris Cruz threatened to end the meeting early. “This is not who we are as a community board, and this is not who we are as a community,” Vellucci said. “This is not an episode of Dr. Phil.”
The meeting lasted just one hour, with the board’s Education and Zoning and Land Use Committees ultimately voting to support the siting of the school while recommending a laundry list of mitigation measures – among them, that a task force be established to create a traffic plan focused on pedestrian safety improvements for students, double parking and traffic violation enforcement.
Other stipulations include that the City Council change the city ordinance that permits school buses to park on the street around the perimeter of a school overnight; that the SCA return to CB 10 every three months to discuss the design and that the SCA coordinate construction work hours for daytime, in consideration of neighbors.
Councilmember Justin Brannan, who helped the SCA secure the site, stands by the current plan, but says he will also take residents’ concerns into consideration.
“Public safety is always my top priority and I take the feedback from neighbors very seriously. All the concerns we have heard about traffic and congestion will be studied, and I expect smart solutions to be determined and presented,” he told this paper. “That said, District 20 is one of the most overcrowded school districts in New York City, and we desperately need to build more schools. I refuse to allow reckless drivers to hold us hostage. Rest assured we will come up with a solution that will improve the education of our kids and keep everyone safe.”
The 25,135-square-foot lot had been home to Nathan’s since the late ‘70s, before which it was a fast food burger chain named Wetson’s; prior to that, it was Mitchell’s Drive-In. Its most recent iteration also included an Arthur Treacher’s, which specializes in fast food fish and chips, both of which shuttered in early January.
The full board will vote on the proposal on Monday. The board’s vote is advisory only.
The SCA hopes to open the school in 2023.