Opinions clashed and tempers flared last week at a public hearing over plans to build a 1,650-seat school facility in Maspeth.
The proposal — presented to local community members and leaders at the Community Board 5 meeting at Christ the King High School on April 9 — would place a new school building on the corner of 57th Avenue and 74th Street, currently occupied by an abandoned Restaurant Depot.
According to the current plan, the roughly 84,000-square-foot property would be occupied by a four-story school with a basement floor and a footprint of about half the land area. The remaining property would be open space for athletic fields and the like, but not for parking.
Stanley Dahir, director of architecture and engineering for the city’s School Construction Authority, explained that the school would have a “traditional de-sign,” and would include an auditorium, an 8,500- square-foot gym and likely an auxiliary gym, all of which could be used for other purposes by the community when not otherwise in use.
The design should be completed in approximately one year, construction about three years after that. Like others around the city, the facility would be divided into three smaller schools of about 550 students, each with its own principal, administration and curriculum. Planners anticipate two of the three would be high schools, the other a middle school. The proposed facility would also provide space for special education students.
Mary Leas, project support manager for the SCA, said her agency was “desperately looking” for viable spaces in which to build high schools in Queens, and that the Maspeth site was one of the few available.
As if anticipating the amount of backlash she and her colleagues were about to face, Leas underscored the idea that she was only there to disseminate information. “I’m not really here to try to convince you that this is a great idea,” she said.
Almost immediately, and for various reasons, skeptical and displeased mutterings arose from the audience.
One major audience concern was whether or not the schools would be zoned exclusively for neighborhood students. Leas said the question couldn’t be definitively answered at present, but that the schools would most likely be zoned like others in Queens, with local children having first priority and remaining seats going to students from other areas.
Angela Ohehir, president of the Parent Teacher Association of P.S. 58, said that having a local school was preferable to sending her kids outside the district to get a good education.
“We want our children to be able to walk to school,” she said. “If we don’t get a guarantee that it’s for the community, then we’re against it.”
Perhaps of greater concern, however, was the potential for increased congestion by buses and parents, and because the facility would not provide parking for its estimated 170 staff members.
Critics noted the existence of two other schools in the area — specifically, I.S. 73 on 54th Avenue and 70th Street, and P.S. 58, at 72-50 Grand Ave. — characterizing the new facility as another overdevelopment issue.
Community board member Manuel Caruana called the plan “insanity,” asserting that the community had been “promised the world” when P.S. 58 was opened in 2002, but had instead been choked with triple parking around the school and increased bus traffic. “We in Maspeth have been raped by overdevelopment,” he said. “We pay for a certain way of life. … Our way of life is now threatened.”
Yet others emphasized the importance of the plan for area children who lack local high schools. Marge Kolb, a member of the Chancellor’s Parent Advisory Council for District 24, which includes Middle Village, Glendale and Maspeth, argued, for example, that overcrowding in schools was a more urgent problem than overdevelopment, and that congestion would always be a part of living in a dense city. “That’s something we all have to live with,” she said. “What we need are schools.”
Dmytro Fedkowskyj, a vice president of the District 24 Community Education Council, cited statistics that showed 62 percent of local children were compelled to attend schools outside their neighborhoods. “I have to ask why, as a community, we wouldn’t want to take advantage of this windfall,” he said
Republican Joseph Suraci — who is running in the District 30 special election to replace resigning City Councilman Dennis Gallagher — acknowledged that overdevelopment and such issues were, indeed, problems. But the importance of adding seats to Queens schools — the most crowded in the city — required a “balancing act,” he said.
Suraci drew attention to schools like Richmond Hill, a 1,800-student high school that currently holds 3,600 and teaches classes in adjacent trailers. Local children deserve a “civilized education environment,” he said. “What we’re talking about here, is the children.”
Vahak Khajekian, manager for the real estate services division at the SCA, cautioned audience members that the plan was not perfect, and that no final decisions had been made. Such decisions lie at the City Council and mayoral levels.
He emphasized, however, that it was “extremely difficult to find reasonable sites for a good high school.”
A public comment period, during which time the SCA is obliged to consider all comments submitted by the public regarding the proposal, ends April 28.