The city Department of Education brought to a halt its plan to build an elementary school at a site now occupied by the Keil Brothers Garden Center on 48th Avenue in Bayside Hills last week and community leaders, who have being unyielding in their opposition to the plan since it was brought before Community Board 11 in the spring, took a cautious victory lap.
State Sen. Tony Avella (D-Bayside), along with Assemblywoman Nily Rozic (D-Fresh Meadows) and community leaders such as Henry Euler of the Auburndale Improvement Association, announced at a rally across the street from the site on Friday afternoon that a scheduled hearing at the City Council for the school, which may have ultimately led to its quick approval, would be postponed for at least a month.
“We’re happy to say in response to our opposition, the community board’s opposition and the phone calls that the homeowners made to the speaker and the chairman of the Landmarks, Public Siting and Maritime Uses Subcommittee, that the meeting has been taken off the agenda for at least a month,” Avella said.
He added that the DOE has agreed to meet with him, Rozic and Councilman Mark Weprin (D-Oakland Gardens), as well as a representative from the Bayside Hills Civic Association, to discuss the proposal before bringing it back to the Council.
Avella did object, however, to the DOE’s decision to not include a member of CB 11 in that meeting and he said he would fight for that.
The plan is to construct a 416-seat school at 210-11 48 Ave., where the longtime garden store now stands and was put up for sale. But neighbors and community leaders argued the 3,000-square-foot site is not an appropriate place for a school because it directly abuts at least seven homes, is on an already-busy thoroughfare and is too close to PS 31, which is two blocks from the site, and MS 158, a middle school less than a block away.
In May, CB 11 voted 25-3 with 9 abstentions against locating the school there after a raucous discussion between members and the School Construction Authority and DOE, but the city moved forward anyway, with the Council scheduling Monday’s hearing. That hearing would likely have led to swift approval of the school, perhaps by the end of the month, Avella warned.
“The community has spoken loud and clear,” Rozic said. “We cannot afford to pit neighbor against neighbor, pushing through policies and projects that will have a significant impact on communities without sound educational plans for their long-term success.”
Residents who attended the rally Friday said repeatedly that they did not necessarily oppose another school in the area, just not at that specific site.
“You can see the buses coming down this street,” Euler said pointing to the traffic on 48th Avenue — a major secondary route between Flushing and Bayside Hills. “Do you really think this is an appropriate place for a school? I don’t. This is not the right site.”
Toby Pagano, a homeowner who lives near the site, said the traffic problem on school days is already bad enough.
“I know what it’s like to try to get my car off of that street at a quarter to eight in the morning when drivers taking students to school are barreling down the residential streets to get their kids to [MS 158 and PS 31],” she said. “We’re not against an additional school. We have a thriving, growing community, but this is not an appropriate place for it.”
Pagano said she and other homeowners at the May CB 11 meeting were told that if a school wasn’t built on the Keil Brothers site, a homeless shelter or halfway house may be, which she took as a threat.
“It was disgusting,” she said.
According to the DOE’s five-year capital plan overview released in January, District 26 — which includes Bayside, Auburndale, Little Neck, Douglaston, Bellerose, Jamaica Estates, Fresh Meadows and Oakland Gardens — has funding for 416 extra seats. The SCA says the seats would be located in a brand new school in the Bayside/Auburndale area.
At a January meeting of the Queens Parent Advisory Board in Borough Hall, Mary Laes, the SCA’s director of external affairs, said finding sites has been an issue in District 26. A decade ago, residents killed a plan to build a high school nearby.
Avella said he has not suggested any alternative sites to the DOE and wants the agency to work with the community to find one.
“I don’t like negotiating with myself,” he said. “They have to back off and then say ‘now we have to work with the community to find a site,’ and I’m sure we could because this community considers an education a priority.”