Community Boards

The School at Columbia University

To Hold Lottery for Admission

When, in January 2001, Columbia University announced its plans to construct a new K-8 private school for the children of its faculty and staff, a firestorm was set off between the university and Morningside Heights residents. Now, nearly a year after the groundbreaking for the building on 110th Street and Broadway, the storm has yet to subside.

In the latest chapter of the saga between the community and Columbia University, Community Board 7 heard testimony on Nov. 6 from a Columbia representative about the fall 2003 opening of the school. During her presentation, Marcia Sells, of the university’s administrative planning department, outlined plans for a lottery system which the school will implement to select approximately 150 students (half of the projected initial student body of 300) from non-university-affiliated families living in School Districts 3 and 5.

The School at Columbia University, as it is called, was initially designed to attract new faculty who might otherwise be reluctant to relocate their children to Manhattan, by promising them both top-notch elementary schooling and homes in the building’s new housing units. Among some of the more outspoken opponents of the school has been City Council member Phil Reed, who says it represents an elitist move to suck life out of the local public-school system. Already upset by the displacement of various retail outlets on the ground floor, residents have demanded that Board 7 negotiate a less exclusive use of the new building.

Community unrest gave birth to the Board 7–supervised lottery system, which Columbia says it will carry out in two phases: an initial drawing on Dec. 3, and-to ensure that the community has ample time to hear about the program-a later one at a date still to be determined. The university is currently launching a widespread advertising campaign to get the word out: placing newspaper ads, disseminating flyers, alerting superintendents and principals in School Districts 3 and 5, informing local elected officials and holding community forums.

The lucky winners will have an “informal interview” with the school that, according to Ms. Sells, will include no I.Q. or other intelligence test, and will only be used to determine that “this is the right school for them”-meaning to make sure there isn’t any “really serious developmental concern.” Upon admission, financial aid will be available for the $22,000-a-year school. Columbia children attend at a discounted rate.

But promises of community access are little reassurance for 110th Street Block Association member Carolyn Birden, who told The Observer that she believed, judging from past experience, that “private schools are very careful to select students who will be successful, and that means that a lot of students with disabilities or behavior problems will be shut out. That’s how private schools maintain their great stats,” continued Ms. Birden. “They just dump anybody with any problems at all into the public system.”

“[Columbia's] initial approach was not consistent with our agreement,” Board 7 chairman Larry Horowitz said of the lottery system, when contacted by The Observer . “The mechanics of [the lottery] were not accomplishing what we expected them to accomplish. We got into discussions with [Columbia], and they have reiterated their commitment to abide by the agreement, and they are working with our committee to get our input, primarily on outreach efforts and the mechanics of the lottery.

“It’s a work in progress, and it’s complex,” Mr. Horowitz continued, pointing to the wrinkle of having a new president at Columbia (Lee Bollinger) step in this year. “We’ve been having ongoing discussions [with the new administration], and they are available and forthcoming with us. Personally, I think we’re going to get there.”

-Benjamin Ryan

City Plans to Wall In Segment of Ninth Avenue

When residents and business owners in the meat-packing district learned that the Third Water Tunnel-the largest capital project in the Western Hemisphere-was to set up a construction site for one of its water shafts off Ninth Avenue at 13th Street, they expected some hassles: 450-ton digging devices called “moles,” noise, congestion, mountains of bedrock, dynamite. What they didn’t expect was an announcement by the city’s Department of Environmental Protection that it was planning to wall off half of Ninth Avenue for an entire block with 12 feet of concrete for four years.

“We don’t understand how the D.E.P. would let that happen and disturb an entire neighborhood,” Community Board 2 member Carol Yankay told The Observer .

A decade ago, the city’s plan was to locate the construction area for the 600-foot-deep shaft to the Third Water Tunnel in a parking lot at what is now 18 Ninth Avenue. But Edison Parking Corporation, the lot’s owner, fought off the city’s attempts to acquire the property in the mid-90’s, and as the price tag rose to $20 million, the city threw in the towel. Edison instead sold the lot to Richard Born, developer of the Mercer and Chambers hotels. Mr. Born entered into a 99-year lease on the property with Long Island City developer Michael Achenbaum, of WSA Management Ltd., who has recently begun construction on a 13-story hotel on the site.

In need of a construction area, the city’s D.E.P., which is building the tunnel, is now eyeing the eastern half of Ninth Avenue and part of the eastern sidewalk between 13th and Gansevoort streets. The area has been approved by the city’s Department of Transportation and will be cordoned off with the concrete wall starting some time in 2004, when the excavation is slated to commence (when the underground shaft is completed, the street above will be cleared).

A back-up for the First and Second underground tunnels that currently supply the city’s water, the 60-mile long Third Water Tunnel-once compared in scope by former Mayor Rudolph Giuliani to an underground Great Wall of China-has been under construction since 1970 and will link all five boroughs to the Hillview Reservoir in Yonkers upon its completion, approximately 18 years from now. This past August, ground was broken at 30th Street and 10th Avenue for the nine-mile Manhattan leg, a U-shape that starts at West 60th Street and Amsterdam Avenue, goes down the West Side to the Holland Tunnel, and heads north up the East Side.

The shaft at Ninth Avenue and 13th Street is one of nine planned for Manhattan that will bring water from the Third Water Tunnel, buried 60 stories deep in bedrock, up to consumers. But its location has become a point of contention, with neighbors balking at the proposed four-year blockade of Ninth Avenue. The concerns, as outlined in a letter to the D.E.P. from Community Board 4 (the site is located in Board 2’s district, but the joint 14th Street Area Committee of Board 2 and neighboring Board 4 has been handling some of the related issues), include traffic obstruction-particularly of the M11 bus line-and cutting off a key loading zone for meat-packers and other area businesses.

“It would be horrifying!” said Carla Krasner, co-proprietor of Dufour Pastry Kitchens on Ninth Avenue at 13th Street, speaking to The Observer . Dufour supplies handmade hors d’oeuvres to hotels and gourmet shops like Zabar’s and Balducci’s and loads up its trucks along Ninth Avenue, where the proposed concrete wall will go up. “I don’t know how we’re going to schlep the goods down the cobblestones” to an alternate loading zone, said Ms. Kransner.

For now, Board 2 is continuing to lobby the Mayor’s office to keep the dig off Ninth Avenue, potentially, they say, by acquiring the hotel site through eminent domain or by negotiating a deal with Mr. Achenbaum-whose construction permit has been granted and who broke ground in September-to delay his development until the completion of the excavation. But according to D.E.P. spokesman Charles Sturcken, the city is not considering a purchase. “If we don’t have to, we don’t want to acquire property,” he told The Observer. “We’d rather use the public space for a temporary time … we definitely have a right to be on Ninth Avenue, and that’s where we’re going.”

Failing city intervention, the community hopes that Mr. Achenbaum himself will have a change of heart and hold off on his project, given the logistical complications of a luxury hotel co-existing with a major excavation. The hotel, to be named the Gansevoort and completed by the end of 2003, was designed by architect Stephen Jacobs, whose previous projects include the boutique hotels Library and Giraffe. “If the city does not pull this permit, there will be a [13]-story hotel there with its front door facing a concrete wall,” Board 4 member Tom Lunke told The Observer . “So I don’t think that’s going to be attractive to a high-end hotel.” Mr. Achenbaum’s spokeswoman had no immediate comment.

-Karina Lahni

Nov. 13: Board 6, New York University Medical Center, 550 First Avenue, Classroom A, 7 p.m., 319-3750.

Nov. 14: Board 5, Fashion Institute of Technology, 27th Street and Eighth Avenue, Building A, eighth floor, 6 p.m., 465-0907.

Nov. 19: Board 11, Mount Sinai School of Medicine, Stern Auditorium, 1468 Madison Avenue, second floor, 6:30 p.m., 831-8929; Board 1, Seaman’s Church Institute, 241 Water Street, 6 p.m., 442-5050; Board 3, P.S. 20, 166 Essex Street, 6:30 p.m., 533-5300.