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School v. View in Bklyn Bridge Fight

Brooklyn -

A proposed 18-story condominium project would bring two big changes to DUMBO: a new middle school and a controversial new view of the Brooklyn Bridge.

The first two floors of the building, planned for Dock Street, would give the growing neighborhood its first public middle school by 2012 – for free, under the proposal by the developer, Two Trees Management.

“They offered to build us a shell, up to our standards, for nothing,” said Will Havemann, a spokesman for the city Department of Education. “It’s in an area that needs a middle school.  Why wouldn’t we make that deal?”

Differing Views

But opponents contend the 416-seat middle school amounts to a civic bribe that will allow Two Trees to erect what they call a eyesore that would rise as high as the Brooklyn Bridge’s roadway, obstructing views of the landmark.

“To build an 18-story tower beside that bridge would be an absolute desecration,” historian David McCullough, author of “The Great Bridge,” told reporters at news conference where preservationists decried the construction plans.

The project has been approved by the City Planning Commission, but likely is headed for a bitter fight before the City Council, which will have the final say.

On one side are the Department of Education, whose ambitious building agenda has slammed up against the city’s fiscal problems, and Jed Walentas, the chairman of Two Trees, which has transformed the neighborhood from near-forgotten to the city’s most fashionable acronym.  Allied against the project are preservationists and Councilman David Yassky (D-Brooklyn), a candidate for City Comptroller.

No Middle Ground

There is little argument that DUMBO needs a middle school.  As the area has become more residential, the need for increased services has naturally followed.  The closest middle school is Satellite West, in nearby Vinegar Hill, which serves 285 children.

Yassky has been advocating for more educational services in the area for years, but it wasn’t until the Two Trees proposal that the Department of Education prioritized a middle school for the neighborhood, documents show.

The councilmember suggested two other sites to the Department of Education and both were rejected.  Expanding Public School 8 would not provide enough space for a full middle school, and renovating the old police precinct at 72 Poplar Street would be too expensive, officials said.  Yassky proposed three new alternatives , but was rebuffed.

At a recent meeting of the City Council’s Education Committee, Yassky waved papers and demanded to know why the School Construction Authority was committed to Two Trees’ project to the exclusion of other possibilities.

“Why not say, ‘Who can give us a middle school in this area for the cheapest price?’” Yassky asked SCA president Sharon Greenberger.

“When you cast a wide net, it’s tough to know what offers are real and what’s not,” Greenberger responded.  “On a comparative stand, this site is the most cost-effective.”

Telling Memos

In e-mail memoranda on December 16, 2008 to education officials, Walentas demanded that the SCA go on record that the Dock Street Project, as Two Trees refers to the proposal, was the only viable option for a school in DUMBO, and that rejection of the project would be rejection of the school.

The agency refused to be so adamant, though officials did say that the only approved plans for a middle school are within the proposed development.

Earlier interdepartmental e-mails suggest officials aren’t considering any alternatives to the Walentas proposal.  “I know that if we don’t do the Walentas project that we don’t really want to do anything else over there but I think we have to follow up on this just so we can say that the Walentas project is such a good deal,” reads an e-mail from Lorraine Grillo, the senior director of real estate services for the School Construction Authority, dated December 9, 2008.

The Dock Street building would go up within 100 feet of the Brooklyn Bridge, and includes plans for a tower that would rise above the height of the roadway.  This, preservationists contend, would block views of the bridge from the neighborhood and obstruct views from the bridge’s popular elevated pedestrian path.

Borough President Marty Markowitz expressed concern about the view, and suggested the planned building be shorter. “The Brooklyn Bridge is the borough’s gift to the world as an engineering marvel from the late 19th century,” he wrote in a report after Community Board 2 approved the project. “The ‘tower’ would loom over the bridge and significantly obscure views from the pedestrian walkway.”

Still, the borough president’s report recommended that the City Planning Board allow re-zoning so the project could continue.

A Divided Neighborhood

Local residents are split on the proposal. Susie Harley, a health counselor, moved to DUMBO with her husband just before their son, Sebastian, was born.  She said that she wasn’t opposed to the development, even if it obstructed ground-level views of the bridge.

“We get a view when we come to the park,” Harley said.  “We don’t have one from our apartment.”

Michael Maurillo, 33, has two children, neither of whom will be middle school age when the project is scheduled for completion.  Max, the older of his two sons, is two-and-a-half and spent the time at Brooklyn Bridge Park throwing various-sized rocks into the East River.

“You look around here and, I don’t know exactly, but it’s gotta be close to 90 percent of the kids are under six,” Maurillo said.  “I’m not opposed to a school, I just don’t see the need for a middle school.”

From his perch on the playground bench, Zion Richards watched his two sons run and stop — and then run through the ship-shaped play structure.  He’s lived in DUMBO for eight years and plans on staying through his kids’ middle school years and beyond.  He doesn’t like the development plan.

“What is this, really?” he said.  “You build high rises and make money, and that’s economic value, but what about the sentimental value? These are landmarks, the reasons people come to New York.”