Village school cites Pier 40 doubts for expansion push

A design rendering of the proposed three-story addition Village Community School plans for its current outdoor playground at the southwest corner of W. 10th and Greenwich Sts. Courtesy Marvel Architects

BY GABE HERMAN | Village Community School representatives went before Community Board 2 last week to present a plan that would significantly boost the school’s space in the West Village.

To enlarge the five-story K-through-8 school at 272 W. 10th St., VCS plans to construct a new building at the corner of Greenwich and W. 10 Sts., on the current site of its outdoor playground. The new addition would sport three floors, including space for STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts and math) labs, math and language classrooms and a new library, plus an underground gym and a rooftop play yard.

VCS hopes to start construction on the project next summer and finish it by early 2021.

The school is applying to the Board of Standards and Appeals to amend a previous application the B.S.A. approved in 2001. This amendment seeks permission for additional lot coverage, or to be able to build on more of the property.

“We would actually, by right, be able to have a much larger physical plan to the building,” Richard Lobel, an attorney for VCS, said during the school’s presentation to the C.B. 2 Land Use and Business Development Committee on Oct. 10. “The reason that this particular layout was chosen was to maximize the efficiency of the layout and the ability to use this space to satisfy the school’s individual programming.”

The as-of-right zoning would allow an even bigger building addition sporting up to 20,000 square feet more space. The school if forgoing that extra volume in return for what it says is a better design that fits its needs. The VCS plan is to build a 25,000-square-foot addition, enclosing more than 17,300 square feet of floor area, plus a rooftop play yard and cellar.

Marvel Architects is designing the additions for VCS. Caitlin Travers, a Marvel associate, told the board that without the B.S.A. amendment, fewer classrooms could be built and there would be other structural issues. The as-of-right proposal, she said, is “a compromised design functionally.”

After the VCS presentation, Board 2 member Tobi Bergman challenged the school’s argument that the feared loss of use of the Pier 40 fields was a main driver of its push for the building additions.

Eve Kleger, head of school at VCS, said that officials have told the school that Pier 40 will need many repairs, some of which have secured funding and begun, and the pier is generally in serious disrepair.

“So that’s part of the concern — we don’t know the future of Pier 40,” Kleger said. She added VCS has had less access to the W. Houston St. pier due to increased community competition for permits, and also that there are safety issues in having students cross the West Side Highway.

“For those who have been involved with Pier 40 for a long time,” Bergman said, “it sounds like the same old thing that Pier 40 is falling into the river, which we know isn’t true.”

Bergman also asked if VCS had reached out to its neighbors, especially the residents at 692 Greenwich St., next door to the school. Kleger said there were no plans to show until mid-September, after which they were shown to the school community, then outreach was made to their neighbors.

Bergman asked if other options were considered that might be “more considerate to 692 [Greenwich St.] than one that essentially seems to make most of the units in that building uninhabitable.”

Marvel’s Travers said many options were looked at but they didn’t have them to show at the board meeting.

“The B.S.A. may have some of the same concerns that we have,” Bergman noted. “And it would be very important for this process to start showing those options that you rejected, so that we can start to balance those concerns.”

Lobel said VCS will provide other options it considered, to prove that the current proposal for more space is necessary for the school’s needs.

There are 35 lot-line windows — split between five residential condos — on the side of 692 Greenwich St. that would be blocked by the proposed construction in the currently open schoolyard. With or without the amended variance, the lot-line windows would be blocked by an addition, according to VCS attorney Lobel.

Attorney Michael Hiller, speaking on behalf of 692 Greenwich St. and others in the community opposed to the VCS proposal, said it was critical to preserve the lot-line windows.

“Those windows disappear and habitable rooms also disappear, so this is a very significant project for that building, in particular,” he stated.

Hiller called for VCS to have more interaction with the community. Noting he had spoken with Lobel, he said, “I’m hopeful that we can continue that dialogue over the next couple of weeks.”

Hiller said that VCS plans to expand its student population with the additions, which would flout a rule contained in the 2001 B.S.A. variance. He pointed to the current B.S.A. application, saying that the additions, while meeting the school’s current needs, would also allow “for natural growth” of the school.

“We should know how many students they’re anticipating when they say ‘the natural growth of the school,’ ” Hiller said.

Architect Travers described how the building additions have been designed to respect the character of the neighborhood. But Hiller argued that the loss of open space on that corner would be a blow to the Village.

“If you’re going to eliminate open space in the Village,” Hiller said, “I think it needs to be disclosed and needs to be addressed, in terms of how that’s going to impact the community.”

As for other components of the proposal, like more STEAM classrooms and expanding the library, Hiller acknowledged those are “important” goals. Yet, he questioned whether these things could be achieved without the B.S.A. variance.

When the meeting was opened to comments from the public, sentiment was roughly split between local residents against the proposal and VCS parents in favor of it.

Opponents argued that the community recently had this sprung on them and are not being allowed enough input. They said the VCS expansion would only benefit a small portion of the larger community.

One resident who said she lives on the VCS block stressed that if the school is going to propose this addition, “then we should have a really good reason why you need it.” She said needing another gym did not seem like an adequate reason.

However, a woman who said she has lived in the West Village more than 15 years and has three children at VCS, said the school hosts events by many local groups, including nonprofits, religious groups, community board meetings and weekend activities.

“The school cares very much about the input of the neighborhood,” she said. “They are very concerned with making this addition work within the character of the neighborhood.”

The VCS parent disagreed with, as she put it, “the idea that there’s some malicious goal here. This is just a neighborhood school that wants to give the best possible education to their currently enrolled students.”

As each side was offering passionate comments back and forth, Bergman stepped in to say that he appreciated that battle lines would be drawn, but that B.S.A. decisions were not simple “yes” or “no” votes.

“It’s a process of understanding both sides and trying to find a solution,” he explained. “We’ve got a long way to go. B.S.A. is not going to act on this next month or the month after. So hearing from you about your ideas is very important to us.”

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