The disorderly file of children in white polo shirts and blue blazers streaming out of six Gilded Age mansions toward Central Park, chatting in French, has become a familiar sight on the Upper East Side. But with the sale of the Lycée Français de New York’s last two buildings to the Emir of Qatar for $26 million this summer, it’s starting to hit home that the kids will be heading east, to a new school building under construction on 75th and 76th streets between York Avenue and the F.D.R. Drive.
There, construction crews have dug a 30-foot trench on the site of the new school-where, in June, they made a discovery that has some parents fuming: a band of petroleum-contaminated fractured bedrock on the north wall of the excavation. Some parents are now wondering why the school traded in six opulent mansions in New York’s most exclusive ZIP code-at fire-sale prices-for a toxic plot of land against the East Side Highway.
“The children will be on a small street which is a dead end, surrounded by a substation of Con Edison,” said George Rpeczky, who stepped down as co-president of the school’s parents’ association at the beginning of the summer. “And if you go a few blocks west and down to 72nd Street and see where the kids are now-close to Central Park, where they play every day-some parents are not very happy about it.”
The move is the largest in a series of steps that the school, which is conducted according to French educational standards and traditions and caters to a small elite of French New Yorkers, has been taking to become more competitive with other Manhattan private schools. Many hail the massive change in the school’s physical plant as a welcome update.
“As a parent, I think change is inevitable; we’d better embark on it,” said Pierre Ciric, newly elected co-president of L’Association des Parents d’Eleves du Lycée. “The buildings as they are are landmark buildings, and they’re not the right buildings for the future infrastructure of the school …. The education system is changing, and we can’t stay behind.”
But not everyone thinks this was the way to do it. School officials knew that some contaminants were on the site when they bought the property. They were discovered as early as 1996 by the state’s Department of Environmental Conservation, when proposals for the site included residential towers to be developed by the Albanese family-the developers of “green” apartment buildings in lower Manhattan, among other massive projects.
In fact, a part of the school’s $20 million purchase agreement for the site stipulates that the seller will remedy the contamination on the site.
According to Mr. Rpeczky, he was first made aware of the contamination in March, more than a year after the purchase of the 75th Street site was completed.
“There were maybe 50 or 60 parents …. After that, the French, they go on vacation and show up again in September, and that’s it.”
The previous owners have engaged with the D.E.C. in a “Voluntary Cleanup Agreement,” where the party responsible for cleaning up toxic waste on a given site tests the ground repeatedly, forwarding the results to the D.E.C. to get the thumbs-up to construct and occupy buildings on the site.
The agreement was renegotiated on June 26-two weeks after the last parents’ meeting-to account for the finding of petroleum, which appears to have leaked from underground bulk-storage tanks now removed from the site, which once housed a parking garage, dry-cleaning facility, auto-repair shop, bakery and warehouse.
In addition to the petroleum, trace amounts of toluene, a gasoline constituent, were found in the groundwater, as well as tetrachloroethylene, a dry-cleaning chemical.
According to Michael Livermore, a Superfund watchdog for the New York Public Interest Research Group, all of these chemicals are classified as dangerous by the Environmental Protection Agency, and have been linked to cancer and nervous-system disorders. The levels, however, are not high enough to be particularly threatening, he added.
“They’re definitely building the school on a site that has some toxins in it,” he said. “The levels that they mention [in the D.E.C. report] aren’t excessive, but they do warrant a cleanup.”
The problem is that the cleanup may be next to impossible if the leaked petroleum continues to seep into the groundwater.
The school has agreed to construct a “vapor barrier” as part of the building’s foundation. Such a method does not remove the contamination from the site, but is meant to protect the building and its inhabitants from exposure to the toxins.
The school will also build a groundwater-collection system that will treat the groundwater flowing through the site, then discharge it into the city’s sewer system, D.E.C. records show.
“Since our election, [the parents' association] has been involved in the process managed by the building committee of the board of trustees … which oversees the construction on the new site,” Mr. Ciric told The Observer . “Since an initial period of time, we’ve actually been involved in the briefing on the remediation process on a very high level, and basically … we have been comfortable with the process that’s in place.”
But Mr. Rpeczky said that parents had not had time to absorb the seriousness of the contamination.
“Some studies have been made there, but you know research is always questionable,” said Mr. Rpeczky. “The only truth is, if 10 years down the road half the kids have breast cancer at an over-average rate, that’s when we will know whether the building is safe.”
“Any parent would be appropriately concerned when there’s contamination on the site … where their kids are going to go to school,” said Richard Speciale, who has been retained as a consultant by the school. But he said the board of trustees has plenty of active parents, and that the school was being diligent in its efforts to keep students safe.
“These are parents, and their sense of responsibility is not just what a parent would have for [your] own kid,” Mr. Speciale said, “but when you have your neighbor’s kid …. These people are very diligent.”
Whether the danger from contaminants on the new Lycée site poses a real threat to the kids may just be a red herring: A toxic environment has taken hold among some parents at the school, who privately swipe at one another. One suggested that parents who were criticizing the administration’s handling of hazardous materials on the site were being manipulated by malcontents who were trying to cause trouble because they weren’t appointed to the board of trustees this year. Another suggested that Mr. Ciric’s presidency was too cozy with the school’s board of trustees to represent parents’ interests effectively.
The sale of the buildings is an emotional flash point for parents. The school has a long history in the mansions, which have retained their opulence despite years of Mary Jane and Buster Brown traffic. A typical floor plan includes a biology lab, a nurse’s office and a dining room-but the grand staircases have been retained, and some rooms have pleasantly dramatic names like Salle d’Honneur and the Marble Room. The school, which currently enrolls some 1,000 children from preschool to the 12th grade, started at the two buildings at 3 and 5 East 95th Street. The five-story house at 3 East 95th Street was built in 1921 in the 18th-century French style and was purchased by the Lycée in 1937. The three-story building at 5 East 95th Street was constructed the same year.
In 1964, the Lycée bought the two buildings at 7 and 9 East 72nd Street, where the Emir of Qatar will make his New York residence, which housed the preschool through elementary-school facilities. Built in 1896 for Henry T. Sloan, a carpet upholsterer, 9 East 72nd Street is the prize among the properties: It’s 59 feet wide, has five stories and boasts approximately 25,363 square feet. The neighboring five-story house at 7 East 72nd Street, which was built in 1899 for Oliver Gould Jennings, director of the National Fuel Gas Company, is 28 feet wide, with a limestone façade, large French windows and a total of 18,256 square feet. Details like marble fireplaces and ornate original moldings abound throughout the buildings.
In 1978, the Lycée bought its fifth building, the Virginia Graham Fair Vanderbilt house, at 60 East 93rd Street. The school paid $680,000. In 1994, the school bought 12 East 73rd Street, a five-story townhouse built in 1920, for $4.3 million. It has been connected to the mansions on 72nd Street.
It would seem the school could make a killing with that kind of real estate in its pocket. But the state of the institution’s finances has also come under scrutiny as the big move nears. In a school where Jean-Marie Messier sends his kids-one parent estimated that 10 percent of the children in the school are living in New York because their parents are stationed here with a French bank-one would expect that arranging the financing for the move to the new building would be a snap. But the Lycée Français has had a tough time generating capital from the sale of its buildings to finance the project, which was a complex balancing act in the first place. Four years ago, the school owned six landmarked buildings on the Upper East Side; now, the school owns only the construction site at 75th Street-for which it still owes $10 million to the previous owner, who is now a creditor charging nearly 10 percent interest.
When the buildings went on sale in August of 2000 with Massey Knakal Realty, none of them moved, even in a robust townhouse market. By February 2001, the school had switched brokers, selling the buildings as “The Lycée Collection” through Sharon Baum and Carrie Chiang, top brokers at the Corcoran Group. At the time, 7 and 9 East 72nd Street were priced at $21 million and $30 million, respectively. The school reportedly turned down a $43 million offer for the pair in 2000, but finally sold them to the Emir of Qatar for a combined $26 million-almost 50 percent less than they were asking, even after a reported bidding war between the emir, developer Donald Trump and a third unnamed buyer. Originally, 3 and 5 East 95th Street were priced at $19.5 million and $10.3 million, respectively; they sold for a combined $15 million. Sixty East 93rd Street, priced at $17 million, sold for around $10 million; and finally, 12 East 73rd Street, priced at $8 million, sold for $3 million.
Sales were hampered in part by the fact that the Lycée needed to raise cash to make collateral on the bond that will fund construction of the new school-but required at least a year to build it after getting the money. This meant that buyers were asked to put all the cash up front, but to wait a year before taking possession of the houses.
Selling under those circumstances was difficult-and now the school finds itself in another tight corner: Sources said the Lycée initially planned to issue $117 million in bonds to finance construction of the new school, which would have required it to keep $55 million of collateral in the bank-$1 million more than the total take for all six of the Lycée’s buildings. As a result, the school has lowered its sights and will issue only $90 million in bonds, reducing the pressure to produce collateral. According to Janelle Paterson of the city’s Industrial Development Agency, which would issue the bonds, the bond issue has yet to go through. And the pressure from creditors is mounting, even as the school embarks on a costly construction project. (Representatives of the school would not give an estimate on the cost, saying bidding on the construction work was not yet finished.)
Mr. Ciric thinks the skepticism will vanish when the state-of-the-art, seven-story school building is finished in time for the 2003-4 school year. Developed in conjunction with the Albanese Development Corporation, from whom the land was purchased, the building will be one of the very few private schools in the city with a built-to-suit plant, and it will easily be the city’s most modern and technologically advanced primary and secondary school. Aside from bringing all of the school’s classrooms, offices and other facilities under a single roof, the conceptual drawings-from Polshek Partnership Architects, headed by famous architect James Stuart Polshek-have been getting good reviews. The 150,000-square-foot building will more than double the amount of space the school currently occupies, and will include a central auditorium, cafeteria, gymnasiums and offices, as well as sculpted outdoor space and other amenities.
Indeed, everyone-even Mr. Rpeczky-seems to like the design. But it will never be the Sloan Mansion.
“The building itself will be extremely beautiful; the whole thing will be nice,” Mr. Rpeczky said. “But the environment will not be what it used to be.”