BY LINCOLN ANDERSON | Despite a commitment early last year by the city to buy 75 Morton St. for use as a new public school, anxiety among local advocates had been steadily rising, when after more than a year later, the building’s ownership still hadn’t been transferred from the state to the city.
Worries began to set in that the shining dream of a new school would turn into nothing more than a sad mirage.
But the nervous waiting finally came to an end last week, when, on Fri., July 26, local elected officials announced that a purchase agreement between the state and city finally had been signed, paving the way for the building’s future use as a public school. An ambitious opening date has been set for fall 2015.
The city’s plan to purchase the building for a school was announced in March 2012 as part of the approval for the Rudin company’s residential redevelopment project at the former St. Vincent’s Hospital site. As City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, who brokered the deal, told The Villager at the time, a new local school was one of the “gets” that was needed for the community.
In a joint press release last Friday, Quinn, Assemblymember Deborah Glick, state Senator Brad Hoylman, Borough President Scott Stringer and Congressmember Jerrold Nadler and advocates hailed the development as a major victory for neighborhood schoolchildren and parents.
The city’s Department of Education will now begin “site selection,” the public review process required in order to site a new city facility.
The School Construction Authority and New York State reached the agreement over the future of the seven-story commercially zoned West Village building on Morton St. In terms of the specific type of school use, discussions have focused on the building being converted into a middle school, with a total capacity of up to 900 students.
The announcement comes more than four years after residents and elected officials spearheaded a campaign for creating a new public school in the West Village to address overcrowding and space limitations in many of Lower Manhattan’s schools.
The city has come to terms on the $40 million purchase for the Morton St. property, which is currently occupied by the New York State Office for People with Developmental Disabilities. The building has roughly 177,000 square feet of space, including an auditorium, and has access to elevators.
“Each and every child in New York City should be poised to receive an invigorating and rewarding educational experience as they grow,” said Quinn. “With the purchase agreement signed and site selection moving forward, we are taking much-needed steps toward reducing overcrowding and bringing much-needed educational capacity to the Village.”
“I am thrilled that we are one step closer to having a school at 75 Morton St.,” said Glick. “This contract is a sure sign of the finalization of the state sale, and city purchase, of the building. When I first identified this excess state building as a potential school, I never thought it would take so long [to transfer ownership to the city]. Speaker Quinn and Senator Hoylman have been wonderful allies, fighting to ensure that our community gets the long-awaited public school at this location. This is a perfect example of a community effort that includes parents and advocates, and the good results we can get when we are all united for the same great cause.”
“The purchase agreement and commencement of site selection brings us another step closer to a new school at 75 Morton St., which is desperately needed to relieve classroom overcrowding on the West Side,” said Hoylman. “This is an example of what grassroots activism can accomplish. I’m proud of parents, C.B. 2 and Community Education Council 2, in conjunction with my government colleagues, for their work to make this school a reality.”
“The city’s official commitment to purchase the property at 75 Morton St. is an exciting milestone in the years-long effort to establish a neighborhood public school in this space,” said Stringer. “I look forward to continuing to work with all involved to see this project through.”
“This has been a model of community, elected officials and government agencies working together to create the framework for a new middle school in Greenwich Village,” said C.B. 2 Chairperson David Gruber. “From the amazing and tireless C.B. 2 / C.E.C. 75 Morton Task Force and the 75 Morton Envisioning Group, to the unwavering commitment of our elected officials at both the state and city level, to the active participation of the School Construction Authority — we have seen proof positive that progress can be made when there is common will and determination.”
“I have vivid memories of the past five years,” said 75 Morton Task Force Chairperson Keen Berger. “It began with parents spotting sites for desperately needed ‘rooms to learn.’ Then Assemblymember Glick spied a ‘for sale’ list — the state had put 75 Morton up for sale. Then years of rallies, many community groups, hundreds of parents, all our local leaders standing united. We all chanted, ‘Just imagine,’ louder and louder as the years rolled by. Our old vision is not just shimmering; it is real, with a new vision — hundreds of public school children streaming into 75 Morton.
“Not only did the community finally get 75 Morton, we also got all our elected representatives to agree that 75 Morton will be a zoned public middle school — not a charter, and certainly not a private school,” Berger added. “A small — about 60 students — school for children who need self-contained classes, probably autistic children, will be in the building too, with their own teachers, principal and a separate entrance.”
Berger, who, along with other local advocates, favors a school of only 600 students, noted the building will need space other than just for classrooms for the students to excel.
“We are not finished,” she stressed. “We need science labs and art studios, a large gym and cafeteria, an advanced library and language program, a health clinic and community space. We must find a strong leader and gifted, dedicated teachers. The school should open in fall 2015, far sooner than the usual schedule. Impossible? They said that about buying 75 Morton.”
Heather Campbell, a member of the C.B. 2 / C.E.C. 75 Morton Task Force, said that she is a real “process person,” and that this process has been wonderful so far. The parent of two youngsters at P.S. 41, she’s also a member of the 75 Morton Community Alliance, formerly the 75 Morton Envisioning Group, a body of local parents who commissioned their own independent study of the best ways to utilize the building as a school.
“I’m so excited that the parents and the Department of Education are working so closely together — from the beginning,” Campbell said. “My kids could be going to this school. My kids could be walking to their middle school. This has the potential for greatness. I bring self-motivation, I bring selfishness — I’m totally invested.”
Campbell said while D.O.E. has mentioned having a 900-seat school, this would mainly be so that as many students as possible could be crammed in. Local advocates want fewer seats, 600, and more space for other activities that will enrich the students’ education.
“This is such wonderful news, but we know that there is still a lot of work to be done,” said Shino Tanikawa, president of C.E.C. District 2. “We want to ensure that 75 Morton becomes all that parents, administrators and community members have envisioned — and, especially, that it happens in the timeliest manner possible. I look forward to our continued partnership with C.B. 2 and the elected officials in making this happen.”