A plan to build a charter school inside the St. Nicholas Houses has triggered heated debate among residents. The proposed Harlem Children’s Zone school will occupy 93,000 square feet of open space between the complex’s 13 buildings in central Harlem.
Opponents fear the building’s long-term effects such as pollution, lack of parking space and higher crime. Proponents say the complex’s own children will benefit from the school, which will also make the community safer.
Community Board 10 will organize a town hall meeting to air opinions about the school, Chairman W. Franc Perry announced at the board’s most recent meeting.
The Children’s Zone has been seeking a site on which to build for several years. “The Housing Authority asked if we would partner with them to build our school at and bring services to one of their housing developments,” says Lauren Scopaz, director of strategic initiatives at the Children’s Zone. “They did an internal study of where in central Harlem we could build the school. St. Nick’s, they decided, had the most space.”
Scopaz adds that the Authority initially approached the Children’s Zone with the idea of using the open space, part of an effort to meet President Obama’s challenge to integrate housing and schools with other social services.
Residents contend, however, that the proposed extension of West 129th Street from Adam Clayton Powell and Frederick Douglass Boulevards, which will cut through a cul-de-sac in the middle of the complex, will pose unwelcome risks.
“Where are the children going to play?” asks Carolyn Anderson, who has lived in the complex for eight years. “There’s traffic on the street. Where are they going to ride their scooters?”
“All cars will be going through and we have children going around,” agrees Cynthia Barr, a St. Nicholas resident. She says the city and the school could have done a better job of involving residents before making a decision.
According to the project overview from the Children’s Zone, “the new street will facilitate access to the school and open the development to the community.” Its safety features include a one-way westbound street with curb extensions at the intersections and two midblock speed humps, the overview says.
But Barr argues, “There are many vacant lots they could have chosen. They didn’t ask the residents. They held the meetings only after they decided. We don’t want it here.” She admits, however, that because of her work schedule she was unable to attend the community input meetings.
Scopaz responds that residents have had many opportunities to voice their concerns. “Starting from January, we have been at every St. Nicholas Tenant Association meeting,” says Scopaz. “The first big meeting we did for the residents was the beginning of May – it was open to the public – to give information and receive feedback about the project.” She adds that the Children’s Zone also held a meeting on a June Saturday to accommodate workday schedules.
Security within the school and the complex has been a concern on both sides of the debate. The Children’s Zone promises 24-hour security within the building, but neighbors worry that the students may bring additional crime. “Kids always fight outside of schools,” Anderson says.
Community Board 10’s land use committee devoted an hour of discussion to the project at its September meeting. Children’s Zone Chief Executive Geoffrey Canada, Housing Authority Chairman Michael Kelly and dozens of local residents turned out for a passionate debate.
Tyrone Ball, vice president of St. Nicholas’ Tenants Association, announced that an architect has been working on an alternative design that does not include extending West 129th Street. Canada offered to look at the plan.
Tenant association president Willie Mae Lewis, a vocal proponent, argued that the school would benefit children living in the complex.
However, some residents object to their children having to participate in a lottery to gain admission.
“Since there are only 33 three-year-old applicants from St. Nicholas this year, they all got in, since the number was less than 100 available slots,” says Scopaz. “We do the lottery early so we can give them access to the early development program for three-and four-year-olds.” She adds, “Due to the demographics at St. Nicholas, we anticipate that every St. Nicholas three-year-old will get into the school in future years.”
State law requires the Children’s Zone and other public charter schools to hold admission lotteries, Scopaz explains. The school will bring additional benefits for the complex, she adds, notably jobs. “We’ll give St. Nicholas residents priority for employment in the new school and construction jobs,” she says.
The school will be built with $60 million from the city government and $40 million from the Children’s Zone, including $20 million from Goldman Sachs Gives, the investment company’s charitable arm. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development must still approve the use of the land for the project, says Scopaz.
Certain parts of the facility – such as the gym, cafeteria, library and computer lab – will be available to the community after school hours, Scopaz says, allowing the building to serve as a community center, as well as a school.
Canada admitted at the land use committee meeting that his organization could have done a better outreach job. He has offered to help accommodate anyone affected by the project, adding, “We’re trying to make this work for everybody.”
The most recent Community Board 10 meeting on October 6 was much more docile, but St. Nicholas residents still turned out.
“Open this process up for scrutiny, bring NYCHA in front of the Board,” urged resident Sandra Thomas.