De Blasio backs off controversial bill

The Brooklyn Paper
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A controversial proposal to amend a city code so that a private school in Carroll Gardens may expand has been postponed until next year, lawmakers and school officials announced this week.

City Councilmember Bill de Blasio initially intended to introduce a bill that would do set aside an over century-old provision and modify land use restrictions on a part of First Place to allow the Hannah Senesh Community Day School to construct a two-story building on its courtyard, which is currently used as a parking lot.

When news of the bill emerged, local residents and community groups erupted, blasting de Blasio, the public advocate-elect, for complicity in the eventual aesthetic disintegration of the neighborhood. To fill up a courtyard — seen as the single defining characteristic of the neighborhood — with a new structure could set a dangerous precedent, opponents argued.

The entire schemozzle will now unfold under City Councilmember-elect Brad Lander, who announced that after discussions with de Blasio, the proposal would now be stalled.

At a cramped Dec. 7 meeting at the school, 342 Smith Street, Lander called the proposed land use changes “significant,” and in order to contemplate them most effectively, it seemed better offthat they all be subject to an extensive public review, called the Uniform Land Use Review Procedure (ULURP). An amendment to the code on its own would not have been subject to a public review.

“That process will provide a more full opportunity to get complete information about the proposal, to consider its impact, to hear from members of the community in multiple public hearings, and for Community Board 6, the borough president, and the City Planning Commission to make recommendations, before a vote is taken by the City Council on whether or not to allow the change,” Lander said in a statement.

The proposal would also require the disposition of the lot, owned by the city’s Department of Transportation, to Hannah Senesh, and other land use actions, Lander noted. The lawmaker said he remains undecided about whether to back the proposal.

DeBlasio did not attend the meeting, but his spokesperson Matt Wing said afterwards, “Our office is pleased that the multiple procedures which would allow the Hannah Senesh school to explore creating classroom space can be conducted simultaneously instead of separately. Bill has worked hard to preserve the unique character of Carroll Gardens, including through the historic down zoning that was just passed by the City Council.”

Wing said his boss “recognizes the courtyards’ importance to the community as well as the need to expand the Carroll Gardens Historic District. He remains supportive of giving Hannah Senesh to explore creating more resources to serve its students and the community and he has full faith that the public process will allow all sides to be heard.”

As this paper reported last week, head of school Nicole Nash claimed that there were “no definitive plans to expand,” but that it was simply her job, as head of the 152-student Jewish day school, to “be thinking of the future.”

But at the meeting, architect Larry Horowitz suddenly put the school’s plans in sharper relief, displaying a rendering of the new building. Horowitz said the new building could include classroom space, a gymnasium and multi-purpose rooms.Ken Fisher, a former City Councilmember and now lobbyist for the school, said he began working for the school on the matter back in 2008.

Amy Glosser, vice president of the school’s board of directors, said the school’s need for additional space is “about making the school better, not bigger,” adding that the school is not planning to bolster enrollment at this time. She insisted that the two-year-old school, which opens its doors to community groups to hold their monthly meetings, “is very much Carroll Gardens.”

Some local residents agreed, and said the courtyard is not exactly enhancing the area. “I don’t think [losing] a small parking lot alongside the school is something to mourn,” said Daniel Sternoff.

But many longtime locals continue to deride the plan. “We were blind-sided by this,” said Barbara Brookhart, a member of the Carroll Gardens Neighborhood Association. “I feel betrayed by Bill.”

“You pushed this on us without consulting us,” added long time resident Nicholas Cinalli, who lives next door to the school.He wondered why Hannah Senesh was even being considered for exclusion from the provision. “If I could have put a driveway on my front yard, I would have loved it,” he said.

Fisher said it will now take several months to prepare the application, which will include a formal environmental assessment. To the visibly jilted residents at the meeting, the one-time hopeful for borough president had this to offer, “if you don’t like what you’re hearing, that doesn’t mean it’s not fair.”

Updated 11:48 am, January 16, 2019
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