At the November 17 meeting of the School Overcrowding Task Force, Eric Greenleaf, a Tribeca parent who has served for almost a decade on the panel, sounded a dire demographic warning. Amid ongoing jubilation about plans (announced in earlier this year) to open a new public elementary school on Trinity Place, in the Financial District, Mr. Greenleaf asked, “do the existing downtown elementary schools in Lower Manhattan have room to meet the need for school seats until the Trinity Place school opens in 2021 or 2022?” He went on to demonstrate, with reams of mathematical evidence, that the answer is, “not even close.”
Mr. Greenleaf began this analysis by asking another question: “What is the gap right now in Downtown Manhattan between the rate of new apartments being built and the rate at which schools are being opened?” He then reviewed recent history, in which the City’s Department of Education (DOE) agreed, in June, 2013, to fund the school that will eventually open on Trinity Place. (It was not actually “sited,” or given a planned location, until January of this year.) “So DOE agreed that we needed a new school based on the number of new apartments built in Lower Manhattan up to that time,” he noted. “But since the Trinity Place school was funded in June, 2013, at which point the DOE said, ‘okay, in this particular region there is a need for another new elementary school,’ since that time, additional apartments have entered the pipeline and an additional school has not been funded for the children who will live in those additional apartments.”
“How many additional apartments?” Mr. Greenleaf asked rhetorically. “Building permits have already been grated for 4,177 new units, although the actual number is a little higher, became a few more permits were issued after these numbers were compiled. And another wave have been announced, and issued demolition or conversion permits.”
The total number of new apartments that have entered the Lower Manhattan development pipeline just since June, 2013, Mr. Greenleaf said, is 5,495 units. “About 80 percent of these will be south of Fulton Street,” he added, “and many are under construction now.”
From there, Mr. Greenleaf relied on the CEQR (City Environmental Quality Review) algorithm that the DOE uses to calculate the need for school capacity, which predicts the need for 0.12 new elementary school seats for every new dwelling within a given community. “So, if we multiply 5,495 apartments by 0.12,” he said, “the City’s formula says that we need an additional new 659 elementary schools seats, over and above the Trinity Place school, based only on apartments that began development since DOE committed to build the new school.”
Because these students won’t be able to attend the Trinity Place school (where all the seats will already have been claimed by a previous wave of childbirths), “they will not be in the position of waiting for Trinity Place to open,” Mr. Greenleaf observed. “They will be in the position of having no school at all. No school for them has been funded, or is even currently planned.”
State Senator Daniele Squadron, who hosted and chaired the November 17 meeting, noted that, “obviously, those hundreds of kids don’t show up all on the same day,” and asked, “when do you think we’ll start to see a critical mass?”
Mr. Greenleaf replied, “within the next two to three years.”
Paul Hovitz, co-chair of Community Board 1, proposed a strategy for softening the impact of so many children needing new school seats, saying, “we need to consider incubation, which we’ve done for all of our other new schools.” He proposed Tweed Courthouse, the DOE headquarters on Chambers Street, where classroom space hosted children enrolled in multiple local schools built in the last decade (P.S./I.S. 276, Spruce Street, and Peck Slip) before construction was finished on their permanent facilities.
When a DOE executive said that the classroom space in Tweed previously used for incubation has been converted to administrative use, Senator Squadron pushed back, saying, “we urged DOE not to do that build-out at the time,” adding, “because of Tweed, we believe that if incubation space is needed, we have a good idea for where it should go.”
Mr. Greenleaf agreed that incubation could ease the impact of the deficit of school seats in Lower Manhattan, saying, “the only way incubation would not be needed would be if the elementary school population Downtown pretty much did not grow, let’s say, between now and 2021 or 2022. But we can’t make that statement knowing that there are 9000 apartments under construction and this is the fastest-growing neighborhood in New York City. It’s just not going to happen.”
Overcrowding Task Force member Wendy Chapman (who is also a co-founder of the grassroots organization, Build Schools Now), said, “if you search Google for ‘best neighborhoods for kids,’ ours comes up at the top of the list. We know that families are going to move into our neighborhood, because it is family-friendly. If you’re moving to New York, this is the neighborhood you want to move to, if you can afford it.”
Mr. Hovitz joked, “that’s why the DOE is down here,” to which Senator Squadron replied, “that’s why Boss Tweed was down here.”
As the discussion drew to a close, Senator Squadron called upon DOE officials to report back to the next meeting of the School Overcrowding Task Force with a strategy for creating an incubator for the Trinity Place school. The larger question of funding and siting an additional new school, after the Trinity Place facility opens in six years, is also sure to be on the agenda upcoming sessions of the Overcrowding Task Force.