In areas ranging from health care to public education, new and thoughtful approaches to providing city services are going to be required. The hope of the City Council is to help maintain the quality of life that all of our fellow New Yorkers need and deserve. Fortunately, at least in one small area there is a slight glimmer of hope to be found - the development of new public schools to address growing overcrowding in our classrooms.
Faced with little available capital funding and virtually no buildable sites in many neighborhoods, the city has started to embrace the creation of private-public partnerships that will build new public schools as part of private development projects. If done correctly, these types of partnerships can become win-win scenarios for communities and developers alike. In fact, a May 2008 report by Comptroller William Thompson on the challenges of building new schools specifically recommended this approach, which he noted would accelerate school construction "without adding to the already strained DOE capital budget."
One such proposed partnership, a new building in the DUMBO neighborhood of Brooklyn, called Dock Street DUMBO holds the promise of hundreds of new middle school seats for public school children in Downtown Brooklyn and surrounding communities. This is exactly the type of thoughtful development we should be pursuing. Dock Street DUMBO proposes building a 300-seat public middle school in a privately funded, LEED-certified "green" residential building that will also create DUMBO's first ever affordable housing.
The developer is also donating a significant portion of the cost of the school to the city - a financial contribution worth over $40 million to the city - and has already reached out to the surrounding community (including several public housing developments) regarding job opportunities and other economic development benefits. The Department of Education, which has been looking for a middle school site in the neighborhood for more than two years, agrees that this is the only feasible location, and is committed to moving forward on the Dock Street school as well.
Sounds like a no-brainer, right? Sadly, no. Despite having earned the overwhelming approval of the local community board (in a 30-7 vote), and the support of numerous elected officials, parents, clergy, civic leaders and even the school principals' union, Dock Street DUMBO is opposed by some local groups. They argue that the building would block views of and from the Brooklyn Bridge, and no level of objective evidence to the contrary (including a scale model, numerous renderings, and thoughtful analysis by noted architects and design professionals) is going to convince them otherwise.
If we are to have any hope of tackling the crisis of school overcrowding in our city and move forward as a community, we are going to have to convince folks that it is time to give real consideration to innovative ideas and partnerships like Dock Street DUMBO. If we truly take the time to analyze proposals fairly and objectively, we can separate the good from the bad and work to make thoughtful, appropriate projects a reality for our neighborhoods.
And should anyone think these words are the thoughts of a blind "pro-developer" council member, let us not forget that for the past several years I have been a leader in the fight against the Atlantic Yards development. I subjected the Atlantic Yards proposal to this very type of objective analysis (and concluded it was absolutely not an appropriate project).
Tough times call not only for tough choices, but for smart choices. Dock Street DUMBO, with its donated middle school and affordable housing commitment, is exactly the kind of smart, innovative public-private partnership needed for the future of our communities.