Hunter College is getting into the real-estate business.
Former city landmarks chief and Hunter College President Jennifer Raab wants to sell off the school’s 3.5-acre Kips Bay nursing campus, near the recently sold Peter Cooper Village at 25th Street and the F.D.R. Drive, and build a 16-story building for science and health-professions programs at 67th Street and Second Avenue, closer to its overcrowded main campus on the Upper East Side.
By the end of the year, according to an official at the public college, Hunter will issue a request for expressions of interest in the 25th Street site, a testing of the waters that would give Hunter a sense of how much money it could make from the deal—and by extension, how much the uptown building project will cost taxpayers or donors.
The project rivals some of the development schemes that have been a hallmark of the Bloomberg administration, in complexity and controversy if not in size.
The controversial part comes in because the whopper that Ms. Raab wants to build would displace the 80-year-old Julia Richman Education Complex, a set of six elementary, middle and high schools that have stood at the vanguard of the wildly popular small-schools movement.
Meanwhile, the property swap has inspired a healthy debate on the faculty list-serve. (The Hunter faculty was scheduled to have a meeting on the issue on Nov. 15.) Last month, for example, sociology professor Claus Mueller took a swipe at Ms. Raab, writing: “As with other Hunter College executive decisions lacking in transparency, the Julia Richman Education Complex project raises numerous questions and issues.”
The suspicious attitude towards Ms. Raab goes back to her hiring five years ago, when some professors objected to her lack of experience at educational institutions and her deep political connections. But the Julia Richman proposal has earned her allies as well, particularly among the science faculty. In a response to Mr. Mueller’s comments, Roger Persell, an associate professor of biology, called Ms. Raab’s management style “eccentric” and “difficult,” but he also gave her credit for bringing better science facilities further than anyone else has.
“There are complaints about every president,” Mr. Persell told The Observer in a follow-up interview. “She’s an extremely smart person and is very politically savvy, and she has an insight into the New York City community that none of the other presidents I have been under have had. I attribute the success she has had with this so far to her understanding of larger New York City issues.”
The private developer that bids on the one million square feet of development rights on East 25th Street would have to build a new campus for Julia Richman on the property, according to the city Department of Education’s instructions, and also accommodate the 600 dorm rooms that are currently there, either keeping them on the site or moving them elsewhere.
Many of the complex’s educators, parents, students and neighbors object that even if the new school building were state-of-the-art, the swap would put them in a worse location, obviate millions of dollars of renovations, and ruin an increasingly productive relationship with the community that had formerly called the building “Julia Rikers.”
A few hundred opponents of the school swap, more than half of whom were students, held a rally on Nov. 14 to block it from going through, marching the two blocks from the school complex, at 67th Street and Second Avenue, to the office of Ms. Raab, carrying a scroll that claimed that “thousands and thousands of JREC parents and neighbors” wanted to keep the school complex where it is.
“I think it’s unconscionable,” said Jane Hirschmann, who organized the rally and is the mother of three Julia Richman complex alumni. “We have built up these schools over the last 12 years and forged a really deep connection with the community. We have a list of community groups that have committed to our children’s well-being. We have at least two orchestras and one chorus that use our auditorium. Why would you want to destroy that?”
But the school complex is also just down the street from Hunter’s main campus. Hunter wants to replace it with up to 14 stories of classrooms and labs (and two stories for mechanical equipment) that would consolidate the science labs, now located elsewhere on the main campus, as well as the nursing, nutrition, physical-therapy classrooms and labs that are in Kips Bay.
Ms. Raab had been working on the swap for more than a year before news of it leaked out over the summer, but Hunter has long contemplated an upgraded science facility, and one is included in the City University of New York’s capital plan. The Governor and the State Legislature have already approved a $78 million allocation for Hunter’s planned new science building.
“The net of it will be that all of our science and health professional programs will be located in one new state-of-the-art facility with proximity to main campus,” said Meredith Halpern, a Hunter College spokeswoman. “The nursing students take English and history, and that’s all on the main campus, so they have to spend all of this time shuttling back and forth between the two campuses.”
The six schools at Julia Richman—which house 1,900 lower-, middle- and high-school students, largely draw from outside the neighborhood. The grade school, however, is geared to children whose parents work nearby—at Hunter, among other places—while others serve autistic children, immigrants, and students who transferred out of other schools because they didn’t fit in or had behavioral problems.
The city Department of Education is tentatively in favor of the swap, because it will produce a brand-new school at no cost, but it is still waiting to be convinced that Hunter will secure the money and the land-use approvals to make it all possible, according to Jamie Smarr, the assistant to the deputy chancellor for finance and administration.
“They are at a very preliminary stage. There is not a signed agreement. We have told Hunter, as we have told the community, that if Hunter can prove that the deal is financially feasible—that they can pay for the high school and deliver us a high school at no cost and obtain the land-use approvals—that we would be very interested,” he told The Observer. “What we have said is, this is not about what is going to happen to the school in the present. The question is what is the best facility for JREC for the next 75 years. Is it an 86-year-old building that will continue to have a host of maintenance issues, or is it a brand-new building that can be built to our specifications?”
While the new location would be less convenient by subway—one-third of a mile further away from the nearest station than the 67th Street location—Mr. Smarr said it would be acceptable because it was reachable by bus.
“Our concern, as it is with any new school, is whether we can site a new school on public transportation that is safe,” Mr. Smarr said. “Using that litmus test, the new location is acceptable.”
Mr. Smarr said the city also believed that the new location would have to be rezoned, which requires approval from the Planning Commission and the City Council. The proposed science building on 67th Street, however, could be built as-of-right, according to Ms. Halpern.
The very height of the science tower—even though it would scale down to 75 feet along the side streets—has engendered resentment among some Upper East Siders, who feel that their neighborhood is already a dumping ground for sprawling institutional complexes.
The new building, these residents were told at a community-board meeting this fall, will be used by 15,000 students, and neighbors are afraid they’ll overrun St. Catherine’s Park next-door.
“The neighbors are worried about the impact of a larger institutional presence,” said Lynn Love, a freelance science writer who lives across the street from the Julia Richman complex. “College students, for better or worse—we were all college students once—smoke a lot of cigarettes. They need some place outside where they can smoke, this being New York City, and what the community residents are facing is seeing this shared space cease to exist as such.”
Ann Cook, co-director of the Urban Academy, a 125-student high school housed in Julia Richman and an opponent of the swap, argues that it’s costing Hunter and the taxpayers who support city colleges potentially twice as much to execute the plan this way, rather than building up the Kips Bay campus, since Hunter will have to pay for both a new public-school complex and a new science building.
“The issue of expansion for all city colleges have been an issue,” Ms. Cook told The Observer. “The idea that Hunter, which has ownership of this property, would sell off valuable space—when in the future they will obviously need more space—doesn’t make sense to me.”