A misguided effort to privatize our public assets, build new luxury high-rises
By Nick Prigo
Author’s Note: Responding to tremendous community opposition, the Department of Education has announced that it will not be targeting the Upper West Side school sites for private development.
In this final year of the Bloomberg administration, the Upper West Side has been targeted for another round of massive development. Simultaneous proposals from the Department of Education (DOE) and the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) are looking to lease public land to facilitate the private construction of multiple new high-rise buildings. The agencies point to budgetary problems that necessitate the 99-year land leases.
When did we decide that we are no longer willing to actually pay for the programs we value most? For decades we have been decrying our deteriorating education system and our inability to protect our fast-shrinking stock of affordable housing. Now, instead of making the real investments in education and affordable housing that we need, the Mayor is wasting some of our most valuable assets to provide a temporary band-aid to our larger structural problems.
In a highly controversial move, the DOE initiated the possible demolition of PS 191 on West 61st Street, PS 199 on West 70th Street, or another school on East 96th Street. This plan would permit a private developer to build a high-rise tower with a new school included in the base of the building.
NYCHA is also pushing ahead against intense criticism to permit developers to build 14 luxury high-rises in Manhattan. Three of these buildings are slated to be built at the Frederick Douglass Houses between West 100th Street and West 104th Street.
Massive development touches on so many critical issues in our community. When high-rise residential towers are built, we all suffer from construction and safety issues, an overwhelming of our already strained public infrastructure, and the permanent loss of what little open space we have left.
This irresponsible development can also end up inadvertently shifting costs from one city agency to another. For example, if NYCHA’s plan moves forward, the back of the envelope calculation is that 80 new school seats are needed to accommodate the residents of the new buildings. These seats would have to be located in a district so crowded that students are already taking classes in trailers in school parking lots.
At the absolute least we need to make sure that any development on publicly owned land goes through the existing Uniform Land Use Review Process – known as ULURP. This process was designed specifically to ensure that the community has a voice in what is being built. Currently, neither proposal is required to fully go through ULURP.
Outside of these requirements, we need to realign our public policy to match the values that we hold dear. If education and affordable housing are actually our priorities, then we should be willing to make a real and lasting financial commitment.
With historically low interest rates and an economic recovery only benefiting the rich, there is no better time than now to make investments in our city’s infrastructure. NYCHA especially should consider other revenue generating measures besides simply handing over our land to private developers. If NYCHA would meaningfully engage and actually listen to their tenants and community stakeholders, then maybe there could be a proposal that would address their budget deficit, protect affordable housing, and improve life on the Upper West Side.
Nick Prigo co-chairs Community Board 7’s Housing Committee and is a Democratic District Leader.