There’s no question that most Whitestone residents oppose a high school on the former Cresthaven Country Club property, but there is controversy over last week’s rally at the site.
Although the event was organized by Kim Cody, president of the Greater Whitestone Taxpayers Civic Association, emails and literature were sent out from the Paul Vallone campaign. Vallone is the Democratic candidate running for the 19th City Council seat being vacated by Councilman Dan Halloran (R-Whitestone), who is not seeking re-election after being indicted on federal bribery charges.
Cody is angered that Vallone turned the legitimate concerns about a proposed high school on 150th Street near Fifth Avenue into a campaign rally. “Paul’s volunteers handed out press releases and no one else spoke,” he said. “We’re a nonpolitical civic and this should not have been a political rally.”
State Sen. Tony Avella (D-Bayside) announced last week that the School Construction Authority is looking at the site, but a Department of Education spokesman said there are no definite plans, adding it was one of several locations being surveyed.
Cody said he informed Vallone about the issue and invited Dennis Saffran, the Republican candidate, to attend. “But Vallone took over at the rally and his campaign wasn’t happy Dennis showed up, although he did not speak.”
The civic leader believes a high school is not a good fit for the residential neighborhood and the site has particular problems such as lack of public transportation and sewers. “Unfortunately, we do need schools,” Cody said. “but there have to be locations that are better suitable.”
He would like to have a sitdown with the SCA about other potential sites. “Nobody will talk to us. It’s wrong,” Cody said.
Although Halloran is a lame duck councilman, Cody said that it was improper of Vallone to use the rally as a campaign event. “He’s not an elected official yet,” the civic leader said. “I like Paul; I’m a Democrat, but my responsibility is to Whitestone.”
Cody, however, believes the rally was important. “It puts us on record with the SCA that we’re not happy,” he said.
According to Vallone’s campaign, about 300 gathered for the event. “We the people must be allowed a greater say in any development that is planned for our district and that means more than any hollow ‘comment period’ that goes largely ignored,” Vallone said.
He accused the SCA of “barging into our backyard” with its site selection powers and “without any regard for what the community wants.”
Vallonee wants all sides to come together at a negotiating table where the voice of area residents would be considered. “The construction of a school in this neighborhood would tarnish the precious quality of life we enjoy here. The local homeowners know it and the SCA knows it. We must find another site,” he added.
Also speaking at the rally was Debra Markell, president of the Waterside Estate Homeowners Association, who called the site an inappropriate location for a school. “It simply does not offer the infrastructure and transportation options necessary for the development of a new school,” she said.
Devon O’Connor, head of the Welcome to Whitestone Civic Association, attended last week’s rally but did not speak. He told the Chronicle that he is not against a high school, just at that location. “There’s no transportation or running water. They’d need to put in a pumping station,” O’Connor said.
Also opposing the site is Saffran who said Monday that although he was asked to attend by Cody, “Vallone took over the rally and I wasn’t asked to speak.”
He doesn’t believe the location is an appropriate site for a high school as it’s “off the beaten track and though it’s in the preliminary stages, people have the right to oppose the plan before it goes further.”
On Saturday, Vallone held another rally and petition signing at the proposed site. About 700 signed the forms either in person or on an online petition at: change.org/petitions/nyc-school-construction-authority-propose-alternative-locations-to-build-a-new-high-school-in-nyc-council-district-19.
Saffran noted that the Malba Gardens Civic Association also has a petition drive that he supports. Go to change.org/petitions/new-york-city-doe-and-ny-city-mayor-allow-the-residents-of-the-whitestone-community-a-voice-to-decide-on-what-type-of-development-if-any-should-be-planned-for-within-our-community-and-our-district?share_id=veXcQQjHyg&utm_campaign=mailto_link&utm_medium=email&utm_source=share_petition.
The property in question originally was a popular country club located on 22 acres. It operated for 39 years and closed due to lack of membership in 1989.
The Mattone Group purchased 16 acres in 2000 and built 110 luxury homes along the East River waterfront. A proposal by then-City Councilman Tony Avella in 2006 to turn the remaining site into baseball diamonds by the Parks Department was not approved.
In 2007, Whitestone Jewels LLC bought the six acres for $23 million. The developer wanted to build a 55-home gated community, but eventually defaulted on its loan. The property is now in foreclosure by OneWest Bank.