Keep the Village small: Stop VCS construction

What would Jane Do? Jane Jacobs, the preservationist and planning guru, speaking at Village Community School on a book tour in 2004.

BY ALAN CHAPELL | Robert Moses once remarked, “Cities are created by and for traffic. A city without traffic is a ghost town.” Mr. Moses’ spirit is probably looking out on the corner of Greenwich and W. 10th Sts. and smiling right about now. In case you don’t know, there’s a plan under development that will almost double the size of the Village Community School. It’s a plan that will negatively impact the character of the Village. And it’s being fast-tracked behind the scenes — perhaps in hopes that none of us will notice until it’s too late. If this project goes through, it would almost certainly increase traffic and congestion for all of us.

I’ve lived in the West Village for most of the last 23 years and have lived next door to VCS for the past six years — now with my wife. I’m a musician who pays the bills by helping companies adopt better privacy practices. Among other work assignments, I was appointed as “privacy ombudsman” by the U.S. Trustee’s Office for the St. Vincent’s Hospital bankruptcy. The very hospital where my daughter Keily was born — the very place that today consists mostly of high-rise luxury buildings in the name of progress.

Details about VCS’s development plan are hard to come by. The plan isn’t published anywhere on its Web site and none of the many locals I’ve spoken with recently had any notion the project was even under consideration. And although I’ve had numerous interactions with VCS’s head of school, Eve Kleger, over the past 18 months, I only just learned of the plan from Kleger this past August. It seems almost as if VCS doesn’t want West Village residents to know about its development plan at all.

The Village Community School on W. 10th St. is planning to build a second gym.

Here’s what I’ve been told by VCS and its small army of consultants thus far. VCS is seeking to demolish its playground, destroy a historic landmarked building, and cover up the facade of another landmarked building in order to build “a gym and some offices.” The school plans on building beyond our building’s top floor, across the full width and length of the open playground.

The VCS team stressed that they are not increasing enrollment as part of this plan. Their primary rationale for the project is to build a second two-story gym. They claim this is necessary because of uncertainty around the availability of Pier 40 for recreational uses. Fair enough. But when we asked, “What are the other three stories for?” they replied they need additional space for “offices” and that they “need room for the kids to make robots.” (No, I’m not kidding). Perhaps the VCS team is being completely forthright here. On the other hand, perhaps VCS recognizes that discussions about increased enrollment and traffic congestion are best left until after they obtain approval to build.

VCS is planning to dig down to the waterline. You may be wondering if it’s a good idea to be digging that deep a mere half block away from a FEMA-recognized flood zone. What would happen to the immediate surrounding neighborhood during the next hurricane? Would everyone’s basement be more flooded? Would our foundations be more susceptible to damage and erosion from the next Superstorm Sandy? Has FEMA or anyone else conducted an analysis? I don’t know, but it seems like a good idea to have answers to those questions before greenlighting this project.

One reason schools tend to get the benefit of the doubt regarding zoning is that they are recognized as benefiting the community. There are currently 350 students, from kindergarten through eighth grade, enrolled at VCS. What percentage of them live in the West Village? Even if all of them do, that means only 350 families who can afford the $48,000 annual tuition would enjoy the benefit while the rest of the community loses a landmarked building and even more of our scarce open space.

If you’re going to remove one of the West Village’s few remaining open spaces and also destroy a landmarked garage, I hope you would at least solicit the neighborhood’s input through an open, transparent process.

It was more than 60 years ago that Jane Jacobs rallied against Robert Moses’ repeated attempts to destroy the character of the West Village. I’m reminded by one of her quotes: “Cities have the capability of providing something for everybody, only because, and only when, they are created by everybody.” If there’s one thing West Villagers have consistently demonstrated it is this:  The needs of a small minority should not trump those of the rest of the community.

VCS will need to get this plan through the Landmarks Preservation Commission and Community Board 2. The plan will be discussed at a hearing of the C.B. 2 Land Use and Business Development Committee on Wed., Oct. 10, at the N.Y.U. Center for Data Science, 60 Fifth Ave., between 12th and 13th Sts., Room 150, at 6:30 p.m. If you care about the West Village’s future, I hope you’ll join me there and ask questions. You can also indicate your support at https://www.facebook.com/StopVCS/.

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