Local Opposition Mushrooms As Hewitt’s Expansion Plan Takes Shape

It’s negotiated two property deals, and it’s endured no small amount of neighborhood opposition, but the Upper East Side’s Hewitt School finally seems poised to make a home for its growing lower school on East 76th Street.

On July 16, Community Board 8 upheld an earlier resolution by its landmarks committee approving Hewitt’s plan to replace windows on the façade of a five-story landmarked townhouse at 3 East 76th Street. The board also gave a nod to the two small, rectangular “elbows” the school plans to add to the western façade of the late-19th-century neo-Jacobean-style residence for the creation of two new interior fire stairwells.

Just one block away from Hewitt’s main school building at 45 East 75th Street, the property-which formerly housed two art galleries, a day spa, a plastic-surgery practice and a duplex apartment-was not Hewitt’s first choice for its planned expansion. In October 2001, the private all-girls’ school purchased a townhouse at 10 East 75th Street for $7.95 million, only to sell it three months later in favor of the more spacious $11 million property on East 76th Street, as reported by The Observer last December.

From the outset, neighbors were less than thrilled by the Hewitt School’s growing pains, but they kept the grumbling to a minimum. As the plan began to take shape, however, and the location of the new annex shifted to East 76th Street, local opposition mushroomed and neighbors began to invoke dark visions of snarled early-morning school-bus traffic and hordes of screaming children loitering on once-tranquil residential sidewalks.

It was no surprise, then, that the board’s July 16 decision in favor of the Hewitt School’s renovations incensed neighbors who had arrived at the meeting en masse to protest the plan.

“We can’t afford to change the character of East 76th Street and Fifth Avenue by putting 250 people into a building that now houses 11,” Fifth Avenue resident Herbert Wetanson told the board.

“Obviously these people don’t live in a residential area, and they don’t know what it is to care about one,” added longtime East 76th Street resident David Grogan.

But proponents of the plan say the block, which is already home to three consulates and the Surrey Hotel, is hardly the quiet oasis some in the neighborhood claim it to be.

“It’s a classic case of ‘Not in my backyard,’” Louis Dubin, a Hewitt School trustee and co-chairman of the Hewitt School’s building committee, told The Observer . “What are they going to pick on next, synagogues and churches?”

Mr. Dubin added that residents’ fears of dramatically increased traffic on the block are unwarranted. Hewitt, he said, anticipates that only eight children will need to be bussed into the new annex. The rest of the students, who live locally on the Upper East Side, will walk.

Nearly forgotten in all the heated discussion at the meeting was that, aside from the landmarks issues that Hewitt had brought before the board, the school’s application was essentially as-of-right. Because the East 76th Street building is already commercially zoned, Hewitt will require no special variances from the city to convert the building into a school.

“The landmarks commission doesn’t regulate use; it regulates the architectural appropriateness of changes to the building,” Michael T. Sillerman, an attorney with Kramer, Levin, Naffallis & Frankel who represents the Hewitt School, told The Observer .

With rising applications, the Hewitt School, which runs from kindergarten through 12th grade, hopes to begin construction as soon as it receives the required approvals. Aside from the exterior renovations and the creation of the interior stairwells that are subject to approval from the city’s Landmarks Preservation Commission, Hewitt plans to undertake major interior renovations. The project, whose estimated cost will total $4 million to $5 million, could be completed as early as September 2003.

And while the board’s approval of Hewitt’s plan brought the school one step closer to realizing its goal, the victory was a hollow one for some Hewitt School administrators who had hoped for a more amicable introduction to their new block.

“We were disappointed, because we really hoped to convince our neighbors that we were going to be good citizens in our new location,” Linda MacMurray Gibbs, Hewitt’s head of school, told The Observer .

Board 8′s recommendation will be forwarded to the city’s Landmarks Preservation Commission, which has final say on the matter. The commission is scheduled to take up the Hewitt School’s application on July 23.

-Petra Bartosiewicz

July 24: Board 4, Hudson Guild Fulton Center, 119 Ninth Avenue, auditorium, 6 p.m., 736-4536.