New school ‘quake’

The Brooklyn Paper
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A Quaker school could make life a living hell for area homeowners if it rises at the northeast corner of State and Hoyt streets, local residents politely charged this week.

At a meeting Monday night, those living near the site said Brooklyn Friends’ plan to build its lower school at that site will exacerbate an already difficult traffic situation. “It has the potential to get much worse,” said State Street resident David Caplan. “It’s going to be very chaotic.”

A generally genial crowd adopted the Quaker practice of careful listening, and even applauded the school during the Oct. 5 meeting, organized by the Boerum Hill Association at the Belarusian Church at 401 Atlantic Avenue. Those in attendance had no complaints with the Friends’ rich legacy and stellar academics. Rather, the focus was the school’s potential arrival at a site that was promised to be developed only for residential use, according to a group formed in opposition to the project called Keep State Street Residential.

“Simply put, there’s not enough room on State Street for this heavy usage,” said State Street resident Chris Aston. “Remember, it takes just one vehicle to block the street.”

“We have nothing bad to say about the school, except for the fact that we don’t want to suffer the consequences of them moving to State Street,” said resident Alex Guillot, adding that Friends only recently involved local residents in its plans. Still, he said, “Ihave to say that I was very surprised at how polite the meeting was.”

Back in the 1990’s, a task force hammered out development guidelines for the Hoyt-Schermerhorn area, finding only low rise housing appropriate for State Street. In 2004, the IBEC Corporation, owner of the lot in question, signed a contract with the city and the Empire State Development Corporation promising to keep it residential.

Only if approved by the ESDC, can the project proceed, but it is still unclear how the agency will reach its decision, or what level of consensus it will require to undo the covenant.“We are participating in ongoing talks with the borough president to gauge the sentiment of the community which until we are shown otherwise appeared to be negative,” said Elizabeth Mitchell, ESDC’s downstate director of public affairs. “Unless and until we see a change in public opinion and public support then we’re just going to take our lead from the borough president’s office and work with them to figure out what’s best for that particular neighborho­od.” Borough President Marty Markowitz, expected to have a role in the process, said he had no comment on the matter for now.

Brooklyn Friends Head of School Dr. Michael Nill said his school has a desperate need for more room. For the past three years, it has been searching for a new, stand-alone building in the neighborhood, he said. The State Street site is the only one that was found in the school’s three-year search that meets its time frame, but, he said, “we are running out of space at the school. There is nowhere to put the kids.”

As proposed by architect Paul Segal, the new school would be 55,000 square feet, stand four stories tall and house 400 students, aged three through nine, plus roughly 80 staffers. Included in the design is a rooftop playground, which Segal reasoned is far less potentially onerous than “residential neighbors who play radios at night.”

“Small children during the day don’t have the potential to be as disruptive,” he added.

As for traffic concerns, Nill said about 20 percent of parents drive their kids to school, and the rest come via alternate means, like walking or riding a scooter. Still, after the meeting, Nill conceded that most residents at the meeting did not exactly embrace the proposal. “The problem is, this area is plagued with the perception that traffic is already bad,” he said. “These people are stressed already.”

Friend’s traffic consultant Philip Habib examined patterns at the school’s current location, 375 Pearl Street, and projected that the future location would probably see about one third more cars, for a total of 46arriving during a typical morning and afternoon. “There will be a substantial number walking to and from school,” he said. Habib said his firm has yet to study existing patterns at State and Hoyt, though, but could expect to do that — after urging from the crowd — by the end of the month.

Boerum Hill resident Bill Harris agreed that traffic is a “huge issue” but said the school matches the neighborhood’s progressive nature. “I would think a lot of people would be grateful to send their kids there,” he said. “It would be a privilege to have the school [here],” he added. Countering opponents of the State Street site, hundreds of Boerum Hill residents and business owners recently signed a petition supporting the proposed relocation.

Sammy Brahimi, a partner at IBEC, said the school approached him about the lot, one of two vacant parcels on State the company owns. “After careful thought, we really think the school can be an asset,” he said. Initially, the company planned to build a 29-unit building at the site, but the real estate market wouldn’t cooperate. Still, he said, he said all across the borough are examples of schools existing in harmony with residential areas. And this block shouldn’t be an exception to that trend, he continued, assuring locals that the school would exist in harmony with its neighbors, designed to respect the area’s particular aesthetic.

Brahimi, whose company has already developed a large residential building at 200 Schermerhorn Street, said residents can work with “an established institution” like Brooklyn Friends, or “live with the uncertainties of waiting for the real estate market to recover.”

“What is more positive on a residential block than a place where young kids can go to learn?” he asked to respectful silence.

Updated 11:48 am, January 16, 2019
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