Variance Granted To Enlarge Private School

Columbia Grammar and Preparatory School was permitted to expand its campus to provide a middle school.  Image credit:  Columbia Grammar and Preparatory School

Columbia Grammar and Preparatory School was permitted to expand its campus to provide a middle school. Image credit: Columbia Grammar and Preparatory School

Columbia Grammar and Preparatory permitted to establish new building for a middle-school program over community opposition. On October 7, 2014 the Board of Standards and Appeals voted to grant a variance to Columbia Grammar and Preparatory School for the enlargement of an existing school building. The building is located at 5 West 93rd Street in Manhattan’s Upper West Side/Central Park West Historic District, between Central Park West to the west and Columbus Avenue to the east. Columbia Prep serves students from pre-kindergarten through the twelfth grade grouped in two schools, Pre-K through six, and seven through twelve.

The proposed expansion would build out an existing setback area on the West 92nd Street and West 93rd frontages and add two new floors, resulting in a building with a sub-cellar, cellar, and seven aboveground floors. Columbia Prep intends to use the expanded building to create a self-contained middle school of grades five through seven, alleviating overcrowding in the high school building. In its application, Columbia Prep argued educators have come to realize the value of grouping students into three schools – lower, middle, and upper – but their current building configuration does not provide the space for three separate schools.

On July 1, 2013 the Department of Buildings denied Columbia Prep’s application because the proposal exceeds permitted lot coverage and permitted obstruction, with insufficient rear yard equivalent and encroachment on the required initial setback distance, as well as width and height of the street wall and side yard. On October 19, 2013 Columbia Prep applied to the Board for a variance waiving these limits to allow construction as designed.

Public hearings were held by the Board on June 17 and August 19, 2014. In the meetings, Howard Weiss testified for Columbia Prep. Mr. Weiss repeated the intention to open a middle school in the expanded building, and stated because the building is located in a Historic District, a Certificate of Appropriateness was obtained from the Landmarks Preservation Commission. The Certificate states the proposed additions will not cause damage to the historic fabric or features of the district.

Opposition was raised by Manhattan Community Board 7 and neighborhood residents. Page Cowley from Community Board 7 testified that the expansion failed to meet the requirements for a variance. An applicant for a variance must demonstrate that unique physical conditions of the lot create a practical difficulty in development, that as-of-right development on the lot will not provide a reasonable return on developer investment, that the development will not alter the character of the neighborhood, that the hardship was not created by the owner, and that the variance is the minimum necessary to alleviate the hardship. Ms. Cowley argued the hardship on the lot was not natural but created by Columbia Prep when they formed the lot by merging two smaller ones, and the expansion will alter the character of the neighborhood by further elevating the vehicle traffic in the area.

Juan Reyes, counsel for the neighborhood group West Side Organization for Responsible Development, testified on the traffic impact of Columbia Prep. Mr. Reyes stated there has been “extreme growth” in the school, pointing out the school had recently expanded in 2001 by adding a new building. Mr. Reyes argued Columbia Prep, in 2001, had underestimated the increase in students that would come from expansion, and further argued their current application appears to do the same. In the August 19 meeting, Mr. Reyes requested if the Board granted the variance, they impose conditions requiring Columbia Prep to prepare an overall plan in writing of how traffic will be addressed and share it with the community, to agree to only increase the student body by ten students, and to limit construction work to the summer months.

Hugh Zanger, an attorney for 322 West Realty Corporation, read a letter from the Corporation stating their objection to the variance. West Realty argued the variance was solely intended to permit a big business to continue to expand, pointing out with tuition of $40,000 per student per year and a current student body of 1,300 students, Columbia Prep has a gross yearly income of $52 million. West Realty also testified to the nature of the traffic, a “…twice-daily fleet of cars, SUVs, black cars, and taxis every morning before first bell and every afternoon when classes are dismissed, which renders [West] 92nd Street and [West] 93rd Street impassable.” Beth Gannon, a resident and board member for 325 Central Park West, testified to the danger of the traffic. “I have a child that I walk to school every day [across] Central Park West at West 93rd Street, during the heart of Columbia Prep [student] drop-off.   I can’t tell you how many SUVs I’ve seen running that light in order to make the turn onto 93rd Street while we’re crossing. I feel like we’re taking our lives in our hands every single time.” Ms. Gannon requested the Board adjourn making a decision on the variance until Columbia Prep “fixed the [traffic] problems they created”, then take up the application afterward.

On October 7, 2014 the Board voted 4-0 to approve the variance, with conditions. The Board required Columbia Prep establish a traffic plan to improve flow at the site in a timely manner, in consultation with community groups. The Board specified the plan may include a red light camera and left turn signal, among other measures. The Board also set limits on how late the rooftop play area may be used, and imposed noise control restrictions on rooftop machinery in another building of the Columbia Prep campus.

BSA: 36 West 93rd Street aka 33 West 92nd Street, Manhattan (300-12-BZ) (Oct. 7, 2014) (Davidoff Hutcher & Citron LLP, for Columbia Grammar & Preparatory School, owner).

By: Michael Twomey (Michael is the CityLaw Fellow and a New York Law School graduate, Class of 2014).

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