Frustration at Lack of Sites to Ease School Crowding in Sunset Park

A privately-owned lot on the west side of Third Avenue and 60th Street, in an area where desperate parents want the city to consider locating a new school.

Photo by: Jonathan Barkey

A privately-owned lot on the west side of Third Avenue and 60th Street, in an area where desperate parents want the city to consider locating a new school.

For years, elementary schools in Sunset Park have been bursting at the seams, provoking desperate measures. Children who live a short walk from schools get bused as far away as Park Slope. As reported last year, P.S. 169 at 7th Avenue and 43rd Street was holding lunch from 10:45 a.m. to 2:20 p.m. to accommodate a student population 415 students above its target capacity of 1,158. It closed the art room and used closets as offices.

The neighborhood population keeps growing; low-rise Sunset Park, where many families are doubled up, is the second-most crowded neighborhood in the city, according to the Furman Center. Not only does Brooklyn's Chinatown, at the neighborhood's eastern border, continue to expand, Sunset Park remains a magnet for Latinos, among others. Meanwhile, relatively affordable row houses and co-ops beckon those priced out of Park Slope or Bay Ridge, making Sunset Park a gentrification frontier.

The lack of new schools can't be blamed on money. The School Construction Authority has long had funds for two new buildings with 1,196 seats in the Sunset Park section of District 15. (Another portion of of Sunset Park is in District 20.)

The issue is more basic: finding a site. Some parents and residents are so fed-up, they're even willing to consider sites in the industrial zone on the west side of the busy Third Avenue truck route, which can stretch ten lanes wide under the Gowanus Expressway. They also urged school officials to be more aggressive in finding sites, including the use of eminent domain.

A chance for protest

The situation flared at a public meeting last Nov. 25 at P.S. 24 in Sunset Park, where the School Construction Authority presented its proposed five-year capital plan, and the District 15 Community Education Council (CEC) voted on the zoning proposal for a new elementary school.

That new school, P.S. 516, will open next September in the former St. Michael's parish elementary school on Fourth Avenue and 42nd Street, with 332 seats. (P.S. 516 currently offers kindergarten classes at a temporary location.)

Faced with a parental petition opposing the rezoning without a plan for a newly constructed school, three CEC members chose to abstain, an unusual split vote for the body, while those members voting yes acknowledged it meant only modest progress.

"We have been waiting four to five years to get St. Michael's. Holding it for ransom is not going to help," warned District 15 Superintendent Anita Skop, who noted that zone designation would allow the new school to serve the neighborhood. "We will not give up the fight for a new school."

The problem has been palpable. Community District 7, one of only two community districts citywide without a public high school, finally saw Sunset Park High School open in 2009 after nearly four decades of activism.

CB 7's 197-a plan, submitted in April 2008 and approved by the City Planning Commission and adopted by City Council in Spring 2011, ominously observed that only 1 percent of the District's total lot area was vacant.

The office of Comptroller William Thompson reported in September 2009 that four of five Sunset Park elementary schools in District 15 were above capacity. Three schools were called "tremendously overcrowded;" P.S. 169 was using a corridor for classrooms. Though Department of Education spokeswoman Marge Feinberg noted that primary and intermediate level schools are at 104 percent of capacity across District 15, last year, according to SCA, four of the five schools cited by Thomspon were above target capacity, from 128 percent to 148 percent.

SCA faces pushback

The vote Nov. 25 came after SCA Project Support Manager Yvette Knight met a raucous response from many in the crowd, which numbered more than 150, when she asserted the authority was doing its best to find new sites.

"SCA understands and shares your frustration," said Knight with careful courtesy. "We are committed to finding sites and building schools in the district."

"Just today, we got exciting information," she said, noting that SCA was negotiating to lease St. Michael's Convent, which could add some 100 seats in a later phase, after the St. Michael's school site opens.

Still, charts described a steep challenge. The projected 2015-19 capital plan funds a 456-seat elementary school and a 640-seat primary/intermediate school in Sunset Park, at a cost of $100 million. Of that total, 406 seats were brought forward from the 2009-14 plan. Beyond that, SCA,, recognizes 1,514 needed but unfunded additional seats in the Sunset Park part of District 15,

"If it's been some years since we've had seats allotted," asked CEC Member Adam Wilson. "At what point and in what process do you invoke eminent domain?"

"Eminent domain means you're coming to displace someone from their home or close a business," Knight responded. "Those two options are nothing that we want to do."

Some audience members pushed back, with one observing that eminent domain was used to help build the Barclays Center. Community Board 7 Chair Daniel Murphy said the neighborhood had some buildings that, "if taken by eminent domain, wouldn't displace a soul. Don't be afraid of eminent domain. Siting schools for our children is a very good thing."

"It's not the strategy we want to use," responded Knight. "It would have to get the approval of the councilmember. If you know of a site that won't impact families or a business, please let us know, but talk to the councilmember first." (Carlos Menchaca recently took over the local Council seat from Sara Gonzalez.)

CEC member Rosalina Diaz—who'd abstained in the vote, she later explained, because "it's an issue of equity"—said school overcrowding has been an issue since 1999. Was there, she asked, any guarantee of progress?

"We have done something," Knight responded. "We've created seats. It's not enough." She welcomed community suggestions. "I can't guarantee that in four years a school is going to go up. ... I know people are very, very frustrated, as are we."

SCA, said Knight, seeks a site east of Third Avenue, a truck route under the Gowanus Expressway that serves as a border between residential Sunset Park and the mostly industrial waterfront. The lot must be at least 15,000 square feet.

One parent, who lamented that her daughter's class had 30 students and said many parents were hampered as activists by the language barrier, asked, "How many would like school construction on Third Avenue, if a site could be found?" That generated claps and cheers; dozens of people at the meeting signed a petition endorsing the concept of a Third Avenue site.

A school on the west side of Third Avenue would create more options for the SCA, Knight allowed, but that would require endorsement by the CEC. While there are schools on side streets near the east side of Third—and crossing guards for the relatively few children who live west of the highway—the only school west of Third is a parochial school, Al Madrasa Al Islamiya, with about 200 students.

One potential site west of Third is at 60th Street, an empty lot once destined for a hotel, according to CB 7 District Manager Jeremy Laufer. The lot is actually located in District 20, so construction of a District 15 school would pose some bureaucratic hurdles.

"We have been so ill-served ... by leaders in this community," observed resident Maria Roca, founder of Friends of Sunset Park. "What about mixed use?" She suggested sites on busy Fourth Avenue, such as those occupied by fast food restaurants or a bank, could accommodate larger buildings.

CEC President Naila Rosario said the council is focusing on a new site. "We have never had the support of the elected officials," she told the audience. Her predecessor, Jim Devor, who served until last June, was less diplomatic; in an interview, he blamed SCA's "bureaucratic sloth" and said former Councilmember Gonzalez, who lost her re-election bid last year, seemed "uninterested."

Urgency and caution

Sunset Park's school-age population has long been growing; in CD7, which includes Windsor Terrace, the number of children 3 years and older jumped 14.2 percent between 1990 and 2000, according to the 197-a plan.

At a meeting of Community Board 7 in December, Cesar Zuniga, a board member who works as Research and Evaluation Director of The Parent-Child Home Program, warned of a demographic time bomb.

"The deficit we have in this district is compounded by the fact that we have a lot of young people having babies," he said, adding that the lack of school seats has ripple effects regarding public safety and other issues of community stability.

A Third Avenue site was discussed if not embraced. Board member Marcela Mitaynes reminded the group that third graders walk to school solo, so a site on the west side of Third would pose dangers not only from vehicles but also from traffic fumes. Roca, in an interview, warned that a school might foster residential development in what is supposed to remain an industrial area.

Queried last week, Board Chair Murphy said the site search is ongoing. "We will take in to account factors such as safety, and proximity to residential areas with the highest need in our search for available and feasible sites," he said.

Laufer said potential sites includes ones in the manufacturing district on 39th Street. CB 7's Joan Botti, chair of the site selection committee, said potential sites remain on both Eighth Avenue and Fourth Avenue.

Rosario told the community board last month, "We have created a committee that's going to focus only on the new school." The committee, she said yesterday, is scheduled to meet with new Councilmember Menchaca at the end of the month. "This is the first time we have all the players at the table," she said, expressing optimism.

Menchaca considers a new school for Sunset Park an urgent issue. "The hurdles should not be insurmountable," he said yesterday. "We're going to be working with every level of government... to make sure that this becomes a priority."

But Menchaca's arrival on the scene doesn't change the fact that there are new few good options in the area for planners and parents who want more school space.

"Unfortunately, we don't have much land vacant in Sunset Park, or in surrounding areas," Botti observed. "We've had sites that were vacant and all of a sudden a developer came in and built a condo."

Roca, who noted that 39th Street now features a laundromat with a large parking lot, plus a spate of some low-cost hotels, laments missed opportunities. "We knew in this neighborhood 15-16-17 years ago, there was already a shortage of school space," she said.