Let the Grownups Talk: The Battle Over Columbia Prep

Central Park West Enemy No. 1: Columbia Grammar and Preparatory School.

Central Park West Enemy No. 1: Columbia Grammar and Preparatory School.

The meeting started out, as these meetings tend to, with loud admonitions from the audience to speak loudly into the microphone. “We can’t understand you!” one man shouted. “You do need the mic!” was a common refrain as speakers tried to get by on projection alone. (There was eventually a backlash, with one woman hissing, “Don’t start shouting!” at a particularly vocal and ornery man. Thereafter he resigned himself to disgusted head shakes.)

The crowd was assembled at an Upper West Side community center to discuss a zoning variance that the Columbia Grammar and Preparatory School was seeking for a modest expansion of its campus, which is bounded by West 92nd and 94th Streets and Central Park West and Columbus Avenue. The school wants to make room for a separate middle school, adding a cafeteria (lunch currently starts at 10:20 because of a lack of space) and more classrooms.

The two extra stories the school is looking to tack onto one of its buildings would still leave it smaller than its prewar neighbors, and the architects are not using the property’s total allotted square footage. But because of arcane zoning rules, the school must ask the Board of Standards and Appeals for a variance. Community Board 7’s role is entirely advisory.

The audience’s concerns were mostly unrelated to the variance. One committee member asked the audience to “do one of those Occupy Wall Street thingies” with their hands if they would be satisfied should the school decide to build within the existing zoning envelope, without a variance. Barely anybody did the Occupy Wall Street thingy.

Dr. Richard Soghoian, the school’s headmaster, was adamant that the school was not looking to expand enrollment, but the audience was unpersuaded.

“Is my word assurance enough?” asked Dr. Soghoian, to which the audience responded in unison, “No!”

One resident shouted to the elderly headmaster, “Well it won’t be you doing it!”—a point that could have applied just as well to the assembled crowd. (A gaggle of urban planning students from Hunter College, compelled to attend by their professors, were the youngest there by at least a decade. They left 30 minutes into the three-hour meeting, presumably to change majors.)

"I love Armenians, but I don't like him."

“I love Armenians, but I don’t like him.”

Dr. Soghoian was a frequent object of derision. Whispered one Upper West Sider: “I love Armenians, but I don’t like him.”

The crowd was particularly exercised about the issue of traffic (“Your chauffeur-driven SUVs idle for 10 to 15 minutes!”), as some students commute from New Jersey and Westchester. Traffic, however, will not be considered by the Board of Standards and Appeals.

The portion of the meeting devoted to the fate of neighbors’ lot-line windows also stoked audience passions. One of the architects insisted that only a couple of windows would be blocked, at which point the audience proceeded to plumb the ontological depths—“What’s your definition of ‘blocked’?”

“I bought my apartment because I thought they’d never be covered,” said one woman, who had moved in one year ago.

The architect conceded that yes, the expansion would block some light even if it didn’t completely cover the windows, comparing the situation to an old law tenement’s air shaft. “But this is the 21st century!” an audience member protested.

And it wasn’t the only time the project was likened to Industrial Revolution-era development. One neighbor claimed that apartments would be “totally removed of light and air” by the two-story expansion, and that the school was “creating a 19th-century condition.” (No word on whether neighbors would be forced to use backyard outhouses.)

Residents of the Turin, at 333 Central Park West, made the strongest showing. The 12-story co-op began its life in 1909—like nearly all the concerned citizens’ buildings, it was built before New York City had any zoning code at all.

Margot Adler, a Wiccan priestess and NPR correspondent residing at the Turin, suggested that the building doesn’t need to split its younger and older students at all. She fondly recalled her own child’s experience at the Dalton School, where having middle and high schools under one roof “gave a chance to have a buddy system.”

Toward the end of the meeting, bowing to realities, the conversation turned to mitigating the effects of construction. Many people wanted the Department of Buildings to forbid contractors from working on Saturdays, and one woman asked if the school would pay for any damage to neighboring properties.

Yes, the project’s defenders responded, they had insurance that would cover damages.

“Except for the urn,” mused one woman, presumably in reference to her late husband’s cremated remains, though we may have missed the joke. “And my petunias!” chimed in another.

As the crowd shuffled out, the Transom approached Mark Diller, chairman of Community Board 7, and inquired as to whether he had fun at the meeting.

“I love engaging my community,” he responded, without missing a beat.