Stone Throwers in the Glass Schoolhouse: Spence School’s Expansion Has Neighbors Crying Bad Manners

In Carnegie Hill Dust-up, who will think of the rich girls?

Neighbors were recently further outraged to learn that even as the corridor controversy was in full swing, Spence was discreetly working on another real estate deal. The Observer reported on Sept. 26 that the school had purchased another lot several blocks away on East 90th Street for $26.1 million, though its website mentioned nothing of the purchase (even in the diligently updated “news” section). However, an addition to the school’s Wikipedia page may shed some light on the move. “On September 16, 2011,” it reads, “the Spence School announced the purchase of a fourth building, a very large space located at 412 East 90th Street, that will become a state of the art physical education facility (with multiple gyms, courts and fields) within the next several years.”

Howard Goldman, a lawyer representing one of the neighbors whose property would be affected, explained the consternation the most recent deal caused. “Spence said that they’re overcrowded,” he said. “They need more space, so they bought 17 East 90th to provide additional classrooms … And then they said they needed to connect 17 East 90th to the main school with the three-story connection. Nobody knew … that they had bought a completely different building. They’re going to be able to move all of their phys-ed space, all of their gymnasiums and locker rooms,” he said. The way Mr. Goldman sees it, with the space freed, Spence could build the common area elsewhere. Spence, for its part, did not return repeated calls for comment.

To others in the neighborhood, the issue extends beyond the neighbors who will be directly affected by the planned atrium. Lo van der Valk, president of the Carnegie Hill Neighbors preservation group, explained that Spence has been unwilling to compromise on its design plans. “It seemed to be all or nothing,” he told The Observer.  Although common on university campuses or hospital complexes with sprawling grounds, Mr. van der Valk claims that the structure will be imposing and out of place. “We didn’t think that a campus solution was sensitive to a residential area in New York City,” he said. “They hired a very good architect and I think that helped them make the cause that this is the new standard, this is the new way of connecting institutional buildings,” he added.

The objecting neighbors will learn the final fate of the project at a hearing of the Board or Standards and Appeals later this month. Even if the connector goes forward, residents acknowledge they will be able to live comfortably in the Upper East Side apartments with or without Spence’s common space in their backyard. But to them, the issue isn’t so much about architecture as it is about neighborliness. Spence has acted within their legal right throughout the proceedings, it appears, but the school’s harsh stance toward the community is troubling to many.  “It’s sort of their way or the highway,” Ms. Dietrich said. “And their way is the ‘high’ way.”

CORRECTION: A previous version of this post misstated Mr. Howard Goldman’s name as Howard Goldstein. The Observer regrets the error.

Stone Throwers in the Glass Schoolhouse: Spence School’s Expansion Has Neighbors Crying Bad Manners