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School Construction Authority a No-Show at Public Hearing

The Bronx Community Board 8 held a public hearing on the School Construction Authority’s proposed public school at 160 Van Cortlandt Park South, but no one from the SCA came to the meeting which was held via zoom last Thursday. 

The board invited SCA to attend, but SCA declined.

“It’s pretty ridiculous that they are not here,” said Dan Padernacht, a board member. “We should demand from them or even forward in the resolution that they appear in front of us.”

School overcrowding has been an issue across New York State where about 37 % of school enrollment exceeds capacity, according to a 2019 report by the Citizen’s Committee for Children of New York. District 10, including Riverdale, Kingsbridge and Fordham, has an overcrowded rate of 42 %.

The SCA has proposed a 736-seat primary school grades from pre-K through five that will open in 2027. It will occupy one-half-acre sharing the site with an affordable housing project by Tishman Speyer. Residents in the area and board members have raised concerns over safety for children, traffic, parking, environmental impact and other issues the new development will bring to the neighborhood.

“I agree that a new school should be put in our neighborhood due to overcrowding in nearby schools,” said Alexandria Fittipaldi, a New York City Department of Education teacher who lives in the Bronx. “But it is important that we keep class sizes low and give our students an opportunity to learn and grow successfully.”

She also questioned the rooftop playground on the proposed school’s five-story structure.

“Being successful is also having a large outside space to run and play in addition to a playground. Not one on top of a roof,” she said.

“Most of our students live in small apartments and then they go to overcrowded classrooms. They don’t need a cramped space to play in,” she said. “They need open space.”

Christina Carlson, a resident who lives next to the proposed site, echoed that children need to “have a safe outdoor ground level playground as opposed to a rooftop cage that nobody knows how tall it is supposed to be.”

SCA first notified CB 8 about the new school proposal on November 19, 2021, but the sizing and planning of the school have since changed. The most recent document was a Negative Declaration issued by SCA on June 22, 2022, pursuant to their 144-page Environmental Review published on May 26, 2022. 

In the document, SCA determined that the project “will not have a significant adverse impact on the environment including but not limited to traffic, parking, flooding, noise, air quality, shadows, and sewer system because their plans will mitigate those impacts.”

The site is located on Van Cortlandt Park South, at the entrance to the Major Deegan Expressway. Residents living near the site said that the area has already suffered from congestion because of the volume of traffic. The SCA will mitigate some of the traffic problems with the implementation of traffic signals and adjustments to signal timing, according to the document.

Traffic at the entrance to the Major Deegan Expressway. Mingxuan Zhu for The Bronx Ink.

“How will we be able to reassure our neighbors here that there will not be double parking of parents, guardians and caregivers picking up their children,” Fittipaldi said. “This is going to make the commute longer for everyone.”

However, without the presence of representatives from SCA, Tishman Speyer and the state senate in the public hearing, the board can only act as a mediator.

Since October 2021, the board has had people from SCA and Tishman Speyer coming to land use meetings and education meetings separately, but they never show up together.

“Both School Construction Authority and the developer (Tishman Speyer) should be here where they stand as two different projects but they stand on the same block and the impact of traffic and space etc. is a shared concern for this site,” said Rosemary Ginty, a board member.

“I think there needs to be another public hearing of this community with representatives from both agencies appearing,” she said. “You can’t figure out what the issues are or what the questions are until you get a full presentation. Otherwise, you’re just guessing what the issues and questions are. You have a feeling for your community but you need that presentation.”

Another board member, Camelia Tepelus, added that there is also a lack of authority in the meetings.

“I would beg the office to make a more concerted effort to have our elected representatives tell the community what they believe about these projects,” Tepelus said. 

“We are an advisory body but these people are people in executive positions. I do believe that the board could reach out a little bit more not to hear only from people but from the people they voted for,” she said.

Jeffrey Dinowtiz, the New York State District 81 Assemblyman, who has been supporting a new school at the site but voiced concern over the size of the school at the Sept. 13 full-board meeting did not come to the public hearing. In an email response, he said that his office does not have a formal role “other than being a voice for our community to bureaucrats.” However, he said that he is “absolutely aware of the issue,” and his office “will do what we can to help advocate for reasonable concerns to be rectified.”

The CB 8 Chair, Laura Spalter, said the SCA has stated it will respond to the comments and questions raised and will “come back later in the process to publicly discuss design and construction with representatives from the Department of Education.”

However, a joint meeting with both SCA and Tishman Speyer has yet to be scheduled.

“We’ve been told different things by different people,” said Martin Wolpoff, a board member. “There’s misinformation and there’s no information and there is counter information. And we’re not getting any of it as correct.”

Residents have reached out to both Senator Alessandra Biaggi and Senator Robert Jackson who oversee SCA about the issue.

Posted in Bronx Neighborhoods, Education, Education0 Comments

Residents Voice Concerns Over Planned School and Housing Development

Bronx residents voiced concerns Tuesday, over a proposed development that would include a new school and apartment complex at the site of the former Church of the Visitation at the first in-person Community Board  8 meeting since the pandemic.

Tishman Speyer, a real estate investment firm, purchased part of the former site of the Church of the Visitation, located at 171 West 239th Street in Kingsbridge, and plans to build a 336-unit residential building with approximately 70 parking spaces. The other part of the site was purchased by New York City School Construction Authority to build an approximately 736-seat school.

“We had advocated for a school on that site. They’re accommodating the school but the school that they’re accommodating is reduced to one-quarter of the property,” said Christina Carlson, a college professor at Iona University who lives close to the site.

Visitation School at 171 W. 239th St. was closed in 2017. Mingxuan Zhu for The Bronx Ink

“It doesn’t allow for a playground, it doesn’t allow for outdoor space. It’s terrible. It’s just not appropriate for the neighborhood,” Carlson said.

The Church of Visitation was closed in 2015, and its parochial school was closed in 2017. New York State 81st District Assemblyman Jeffrey Dinowitz said that since then, he has been proposing a new school. Building a new school at the site would be ideal since there are four school zones, each within a few blocks away, and the new school can alleviate the overcrowding at the other schools.

However, Tishman Speyer’s residential housing program is going to occupy 1.3 acres of the site, leaving the school with only half an acre.

“I want the school on the site, on the whole site,” said Dinowitz in the meeting. “It’s very important that we get that the school is going to be crammed into a little corner, a little part of that site. And it’s just not enough.”

There were also concerns about the housing complex.

Tishman Speyer is going to build an eight-story building with 25% studio, 45% one-bedroom, 20% two-bedroom, and 10% three-bedroom, resulting in more than 40 units per floor, according to Gary Rodney, the Managing Director and the Head of Affordable Housing at Tishman Speyer. The project is going to be built between Van Cortlandt Park South and 239th Street, and between Broadway and the entrance to the Major Deegan Expressway.

Residents are also worried that building a school and residential housing with just 70 parking spaces is going to add more pressure to the already congested corridor.

“Imagine what it would be like with at least an additional 1,000 vehicles including dozens of school buses, staff, teachers and private cars,” said Giovanni Puello, a retired consultant who also lives close to the site. “This is a recipe for a disaster.”

Carlson also voiced her concern about the traffic at the school.

“Where will they gather in the event of a fire drill, or god forbid, a fire when the fire trucks can’t get to them because of the traffic,” she said.

Robert Fanuzzi, a community board member, who was also at the land use committee meeting, voiced his concerns over the site’s geographical region, which is vulnerable to flooding.

The Bronx was heavily impacted when Hurricane Ida hit New York City last year. Kingsbridge and Van Cortlandt sections suffered most of the flooding, especially Major Deegan Expressway, right by the site.

The Major Deegan Expressway has been closed three times since Hurricane Ida.

“You (Tishman Speyer) are contributing a lot of wastewater now through additional units, residential space to already sewers that I need to tell you are at capacity and presenting a real public emergency on a regular basis now,” Fanuzzi said. “There is definitely an environmental impact of building in a flood zone.”

A spokesperson from Tishman Speyer declined an interview request, but sent a statement via email.

“We are pleased to be a part of the redevelopment of the former Visitation Church site, which will bring quality affordable housing and much-needed public school seats to the neighborhood,” it stated.  

“We are grateful for the opportunity to present our initial vision for an all-affordable apartment building to Community Board 8 and appreciate the feedback we have received from the community.”

Laura Spalter, chair of Community Board 8, said that she understands the concerns of the community regarding traffic, public safety, flood planning and education for the children, however, the Tishman Speyer affordable housing project is an as-of-right project, meaning the company can take action without obtaining permission from the community. 

“We can try to influence the design, and we have set up a committee with Tishman and members of our traffic and transportation committee, also members of our environment and sanitation committee,” Spalter said.

“But this is an as-of-right project, so we don’t have a vote.”

“It wouldn’t be as problematic if it wasn’t next to this affordable housing project. People support affordable housing. They support a school. But it’s the density,” she said. “That’s just a lot of cars, a lot of traffic, a lot of school buses… Just a lot.”

Posted in Bronx Beats, Bronx Neighborhoods, Education, Housing0 Comments