On May 14, toques behind booths dished out steaming crêpes at the Lycée Français de New York’s annual spring fair, as French hip-hop performers took the stage in the school’s brand-new 350-seat auditorium. Opened just 10 days before, with the scent of newly laid carpet still pungent, the auditorium is the latest feature to make its debut in the French-language school’s five-story, $112 million building designed by award-winning Polshek Partnership Architects, and inspired by the ideas of French philosopher René Descartes.
Troupes of élèves broke the school’s normal dress code (white polo shirt, blue blazer) to frolic about the school’s East 75th Street Xanadu as groups of parents nattered in French.
But two floors below, the school’s south gymnasium remained closed. Shuttered behind locked doors, a tangled mass of construction material could be seen covering the floor through darkened windows.
Since March, according to a source familiar with the school’s day-to-day operations, water from an unknown source has been leaking into the south gymnasium, damaging the wooden floor.
With one of the school’s two gyms knocked out of service, the Lycée has been forced to cordon off the area and rent temporary gym space at nearby institutions as the school locates the cause of the water damage and plans a repair.
The problem is complicated by the fact that early testing on the school’s construction site showed toxic chemicals present in the bedrock, which the school had to address during construction with measures designed to seal the basement off from possible water seepage. A letter to parents last week said that recent tests showed no toxicity in the leaking water. But it was not clear how far renovations on the brand-new gym might be complicated by extra precautions taken during construction specifically to avoid leaks.
Yefim Gurevich, project manager for the structural engineering firm WSP Cantor Seinuk Group, said he was called to the site in early April, but found no structural problems that could result in a leak. Parents at the 1,050-student school, which teaches students in preschool through 12th grade following a formal French curriculum, received a letter dated May 13 from head of school Yves Thézé informing them of the water damage, and describing the school’s efforts to recoup insurance money for the repair.
A parent read the letter to The Observer but would not supply a copy; another source verified having received it, too.
The letter said that repairs were taking longer than anticipated, and that the school had obtained approval from its insurance company to further research the cause of the problem.
Water damage, notwithstanding, the building has received positive accolades from parents.
“It’s been absolutely fabulous,” said Catherine Grossman, a parent of two Lycée élèves, a ninth- and an 11th-grader. “You do a huge construction project like this, and this is all part of the process. I’m not worried about it. The children are very happy there,” Ms. Grossman said.
A big part of the reason to build the new place was to consolidate the school under one roof. But the Lycée now finds itself in the curious position of looking outward to meet its requirements. According to Linda Larkin, the business manager of the Town School at 540 East 76th Street, the Lycée rented gym space for a week in March. Currently, according to Marcia Arcia, the business manager of the Church of the Epiphany at 1393 York Avenue, the Lycée rents gym space five days per week from 1:30 to 3 p.m., with additional time from 3:30 to 5 p.m. on Thursdays.
To be sure, new buildings experience construction hiccups during the early stages of occupancy, but the closure of the Lycée’s gym-and the silence surrounding the water damage-is just the latest episode in a real-estate saga that touches a raw nerve within the insular and elite French expatriate community in New York. Since 2001, the French community has been divided over the 69-year-old school’s controversial financing plan that involved selling its stable of six landmarked Upper East Side mansions-at fire-sale prices-to build a $112 million campus on an industrial site just steps from the F.D.R. Drive, when the old buildings sat at Central Park’s doorstep. The deal required the Lycée to float $90 million in bonds from J.P. Morgan that total $195.7 million in debt including principal and interest over 30 years.
News of the Lycée’s real-estate travails have swirled from the limestone corridors of Park Avenue to the floor of the French Senate in Paris and the pages of newspapers like Le Nouvel Observateur and the society magazine Paris Match.
The Lycée’s coterie of elite alumni-which includes Philippe de Montebello, the director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art; Michel David-Weill, the chairman of Lazard Freres; the late Susan Sontag’s son David Rieff; the novelist Danielle Steel; the children of former Vivendi chief executive Jean-Marie Messier; and chef Daniel Boulud’s daughter-lend the school a social cachet that established the Francophile institution as a cornerstone of French America. Critics now say that the debt from the school’s construction may largely be covered by increases in tuition. In France, lycées traditionally emphasize affordable education and shun the arms-race-like spending of super-competitive New York private schools. So the French bristle at the possibility that the Lycée has gone native in its efforts to compete in the Manhattan private-school marketplace.
Lycée documents show the school discussed the flood back in April. In minutes from a Parent’s Association meeting held April 12 and posted on the Lycée’s Web site, Mr. Thézé told parents a “letter is forthcoming. The school is in the process of analyzing the cause of the flood.”
But, with the Lycée renting temporary gym space at nearby institutions, critics say the water leak once again raises health concerns about the building’s location and proximity to the Con Ed facility.
During construction on the new building in 2002, workers excavated a band of fractured bedrock contaminated with petroleum on the project’s north wall, The Observer reported at the time. Along with petroleum, state Department of Environmental Conservation tests showed that groundwater from the site-formerly a parking garage, dry cleaner, auto repair and bakery which the Lycée purchased for $20 million from the Albanese family-contained trace amounts of toluene, a gasoline constituent, as well as tetrach loroethylene, a dry-cleaning chemical. Engineers encased the gym, which sat 12 feet below the East River water level, in a “vapor barrier” and installed a groundwater collection system to block outside water from entering the lower levels.
In a letter responding to The Observer’s report, Lycée board chair Elsa Berry Bankier said the school had fully complied with state environmental codes.
“The trustees-most of whom are Lycée parents-would never bring our children or the Lycée’s teachers and staff into an unsafe environment,” Ms. Berry Banker wrote at the time. “Under supervision of the [Department of Environmental Conservation], the remediation of the site is now complete and fully compliant with its tough standards for schools.”
In his letter to parents last week, Mr. Thézé said the leak posed no environmental risk to the children.
According to the letter, the monthly water analysis, as well as more advanced analysis, did not reveal any toxicity in the water samples tested.
Repeated requests for comment concerning the water damage from Mr. Thézé and Ms. Berry Bankier were not returned. Parent’s Association co-president Antoinette Fleisch, the wife of Mr. Messier, did not respond to e-mails seeking comment.
Likewise, the Lycée’s engineers declined to discuss the flood.
Joseph Mizzi, the executive vice president of F.J. Sciame Construction Co., the project’s construction manager, said his firm was not involved in locating the leak’s source.
Andy Ciancia, the project manager at Langan Engineering and Environmental Services, the geotechnical engineering firm that subcontracted on the Lycée’s construction, declined to comment as well.
“I think it’s a serious issue,” said Jean Lachaud, a locally elected French official who represents the 20,000 French expatriates in the tri-state region around New York City. “[E]specially in light of the fact that when the new building opened, the administration of the school said it could be able to rent out sports facilities to other schools.”
Mr. Lachaud returned from Paris last week and said he discussed the Lycée’s water damage with a French Senator.
Mr. Lachaud said the Lycée has not communicated with him any details of the leak, but the repairs to the gym threatened to further drive up the Lycée’s already escalating tuition costs.
“It seems to me it will have an impact on costs for the Lycée. We don’t know how temporary it is,” Mr. Lachaud said. “I think these things can happen. But on the other hand, if the leak is a fundamental issue that needs to be repaired, then it becomes a more serious matter.”