West 129th Street cul-de-sac eliminated for charter school

NYCHA proposal would restore West 129th Street in the St. Nicholas Houses as part of Harlem Children’s Zone’s charter school plan. On March 30, 2011, the City Planning Commission approved the New York City Housing Authority’s proposal to re-connect West 129th Street and Frederick Douglass Boulevard in Harlem. The City in the 1950s closed a portion of West 129th Street by creating a cul-de-sac between Frederick Douglas Boulevard and Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Boulevard to facilitate the development of NYCHA’s fourteen-acre St. Nicholas Houses apartment complex. The cul-de-sac intersects with Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Boulevard and provides access to the tower-in-the-park housing development.

NYCHA requested that the City eliminate the cul-de-sac and reestablish West 129th Street as a through street as part of Harlem Children’s Zone’s plan to  build a 1,300-seat charter school. Harlem Children’s Zone has already broken ground on the five-story school, known as Promise Academy, on land northwest of the cul-de-sac. The school is scheduled to be completed by the 2012 school year. Rather than following the City’s land  use review process, NYCHA, as a state authority, was required by federal law to follow the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s public review requirements in order to transfer its land to Harlem Children’s Zone.

Manhattan Community Board 10 supported the school, but  opposed reestablishing the through street. CB 10 expressed concerns about the proposal’s impacts on the residents of St. Nicholas Houses, and claimed that the community had been denied an opportunity to provide meaningful input before NYCHA transferred the property under HUD’s review process.

Borough President Scott M. Stringer supported the proposal, but conditioned his approval on NYCHA and Harlem Children’s Zone making several commitments. Among them, Stringer requested that NYCHA relocate three community gardens and the parking spaces that would be displaced by the project, and that Harlem Children’s Zone offer free after-school and summer programs for residents of St. Nicholas Houses.

Stringer acknowledged that the land transfer and the school’s development were outside the City’s purview, but argued that HUD’s public review process was inadequate and needed to be changed. Stringer suggested that NYCHA develop a new process to dispose of publicly owned land that required increased consultation with affected tenants and public officials.

At the Planning Commission’s public hearing, Harlem Children’s Zone’s Geoffrey Canada testified that the area had been “carved up” by gangs, and that re-opening West 129th Street and building the school would increase pedestrian traffic and create “neutral territory” that would be safe for children. Canada stated that every three-year-old child in the St. Nicholas Houses would be guaranteed a spot in the school, which would also open nights and weekends for community uses.

Paimaan Lodhi, CB 10’s district manager, reiterated the community board’ support for the school, but testified that CB 10 was not convinced that the through street was necessary. According to Lodhi,  CB 10 asked the Department of Transportation to present evidence as to why it would be necessary, but it did not  respond to the request. Other opponents argued that the through street would increase vehicle traffic and be unsafe for pedestrians.

The Commission approved the proposal, finding that re-establishing West 129th Street as a through street would improve safety and provide the type of fluid street system the school required. The Commission was satisfied with NYCHA’s outreach efforts, noting that NYCHA claimed to have held twelve outreach events prior  to submitting its current application to Planning.

CPC: West 129th St. Demapping (C 110068  MMM–map amend.) (March 30, 2011).

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