By Helen Klein
Special to the Brooklyn Eagle
This time, Flatbush residents are determined, they are not going to throw away their shot, as they strive once again to derail a project that the developer says is a school but which they believe will be a medical facility, where it doesn’t belong, smack in the middle of a residential area.
Haunted by a lot that has been strewn with medical waste over the past several years, and where nursing home workers have parked vehicles used in the construction at the nearby Ditmas Park Rehabilitation and Care Center, the residents made their distress clear on Monday, Aug. 10, during a Zoom hearing held by the city’s Board of Standards and Appeals which is considering the developer’s request to extend his lapsed variance, as he tries to restart the stalled project on East 21st Street near Ditmas Avenue.
“If they can’t manage the property when there’s no medical facility, when one is on hand, how are they going to handle it?” demanded resident Stefanie Hampton.
The current Covid-19 epidemic only exacerbates the situation, added Harry Bubbins, speaking on behalf of Respect Brooklyn, self-described in its website as “a coalition for sensible development and historic preservation.”
Said Bubbins, “The health and well-being of the 24-7 occupants of the so-called school and residential community playing host to a medical facility purporting to be a school in the middle of the Covid pandemic must be examined far more closely and the circumstances have changed so significantly that an extension is not warranted because of that alone.”
The developer, Ocean Avenue Education Support, says it needs the expired variance to be renewed for an additional two years in order to build a school for seriously ill children who are ventilator-dependent. However, residents believe that what would be built at the three-parcel site, comprising 570 East 21st St. and two lots on Ocean Avenue (919 and 925), would be a medical facility, plain and simple.
The site proposed for the Brooklyn School for Medically Frail Children is across the street from the Ditmas Park Care Center, and residents say that the $37 million raised so far, using the site as collateral, has been utilized for a 200-bed expansion of the rehabilitation center, whose address is the same as that of the current owner of the property, Kolel Bais Yakov, 2107 Ditmas Ave.
However, contended Bubbins, “The applicant’s papers prove beyond any doubt that there never was and there does not currently exist a school. The applicant is not even a school.
“By their own admissions, if one wants to take them as truth, the applicant claims to have no money for a school, yet they have over $30 million in financing to expand the medical center that they say this proposal is not part of,” Bubbins went on. “The applicant verifies that they have no students; they have no teachers; no curriculum; the so-called school does not own the property. The applicant seems to try to blame over five years of delays on one person that was not up to the job. And yet according to IRS filings for the Brooklyn School for the Frail Children, they did not pay a salary to any staffers, and their expenses do not seem sufficient to be paying the array of experts and consultants and architects and lawyers they say they have engaged in this project for so many years.”
Bubbins also said that a FOIL request to the New York State Board of Regents for the school’s charter came up empty.
In addition, according to Steven Jones, the attorney for some of the residents who oppose the project, documentation provided by the developer “states specifically that it’s a pediatric nursing facility,” a position that was echoed by Dr. Matthew Jones, a former resident of the area, who said that the facility’s “primary role” is to “serve as a long-term acute care facility, which,” he added, “must be done in the appropriately zoned area.”
Among residents’ concerns is the fact that some of the students at the school would actually be living there, engendering a laundry list of round-the-clock medical requirements. Residents also say the 40-car garage proposed for the site in question would be for the use of the rehab center, and they raised concerns over the prior dumping at the site, including waste labeled “bio-hazard.”
Most of the BSA commissioners who spoke during the hearing expressed skepticism about the development timeline, and about the lack of progress on developing a school at the site, and expressed concern about the dumping issues.
“It seems to me the requested variance was premature since there is no evidence the school could be built,” noted BSA Chair Margery Perlmutter, who said BSA did not yet have evidence that the school had received its charter, and also emphasized the “chicken and egg” nature of the situation, with school representatives saying they need to establish a school in order to determine state funding for the school, which needs the funding in order to operate, leading to the developers’ decision to establish what they say is a temporary school in the Ditmas Park Care Center.
“As we learn more, it seems like the application was extremely premature,” added Perlmutter, who also noted that many schools do not succeed. “If they do open a temporary school, they may discover that’s good enough.”
Representatives of the school who spoke during the hearing contended that the school had, indeed, gotten a charter from the state’s Board of Regents, which they said would be submitted to BSA, and also said that the money raised using the site as collateral went into creating the temporary school space within the care center down the block. Another $10 to $15 million would be needed for the permanent school, according to Joel Harfenes, who said he was the board secretary, but who previously wrote to BSA as board president, and who has been a member of the management team at the care center.
“The interim facility is very close to opening,” contended the developer’s land use attorney, Benjamin Stark, while the education attorney working with the developer, Marion Katzive, said that she believed the state was poised to issue a “finding of need,” which would accelerate the process of creating the school. Once the interim school opens, said consultant Dean Tischfeld, who said he is also working on the project, it would likely take one to three years for the school to move on to the next phase.
The original variance was issued in 2015, despite the overwhelming opposition of neighbors and area residents, and expired in 2019. It followed the 2012 rejection of the developer’s application by the city’s Department of Buildings, because (as explained by DOB in a letter to the Ditmas Park Association dated July 10, 2015) “the proposed occupancy is not permitted in an R1 district.”
The full site is in two different zoning districts, R1-2 and R7A, with the R1-2 zoning imposing stringent restrictions on building size, bulk and use, as well as limitations as to the sort of facilities permitted there (schools and religious institutions are allowed). The Department of City Planning’s “Zoning Handbook” describes R1 districts as “leafy, low-density neighborhoods of large, single-family detached homes.”
According to its website, BSA is “an integral part of the City’s system for regulating land use, development, and construction and was established as an independent board to grant ‘relief’ from the zoning code.” Developers often turn to the board when they wish to do something that is not permitted by existing zoning.
The next BSA hearing on the matter will be held at the end of November or early December.