Stephen Pierson is a candidate for City Council in the 33rd District. He is the founder and Executive Director of Canteen Arts, a nonprofit organization that provides tutoring to at-risk public school students. He is also a member of Community Board 2 and the Democratic County Committee. He is the father of a 2-year-old daughter, with his second daughter due in November.
Unwatched Pots Boil Quickly: Our Impending School Overcrowding Crisis in Downtown Brooklyn
Proactive measures rarely make for a rousing stump speech. As a result, New York City’s elected officials have an unfortunate habit of not addressing problems until they reach a crisis point. But without proactive measures, our district will continue staggering from crisis to crisis. As we’ve seen with our libraries, hospitals, flood preparedness, and environmental issues (e.g., Newtown Creek and the Gowanus Canal), ignoring simmering problems doesn’t prevent them from boiling.
We have a simmering problem in Downtown Brooklyn that threatens to boil into Brooklyn Heights and other surrounding neighborhoods in the next few years: Downtown Brooklyn will soon be flooded with thousands of new school-age children; yet there are currently no elementary or middle schools in Downtown Brooklyn. Surrounding neighborhood schools will soon be flooded with far more students than they can handle.
When Downtown was rezoned in 2004, the City estimated that this rezoning would result in just under 1,000 total new housing units.1 However, by 2018 the rezoning will have actually resulted in nearly 13,000 new units—8,000 of which will be built over the next five years. According to the NYC School Construction Authority’s formula,2 by 2018 Downtown Brooklyn will have 2,303 more Pre-K to 5th grade students and 950 more middle school students.
Without any new schools, Brooklyn Heights’ lone public school, PS 8, will flood with new applicants. The problem is that even with PS 8′s new (2011) annex, it still has space for only 56 more students. And by the Department of Education’s “Target” methodology (it’s “aspirational” capacity calculation), PS 8 is actually already 48 students over capacity.
On top of this, Brooklyn Heights and the entire zone of PS 8 anticipates an additional 936 units of housing between now and 2016. Using the School Construction Authority’s formula, new PS 8 housing will result in 271 more Pre-K through 5th grade students and 112 middle schoolers by 2016. This number doesn’t include the potential for many hundreds (perhaps thousands) of new units that could result from the impending sale of the Jehovah’s Witness properties.
The only new planned schools are Brooklyn Prospect Charter School’s kindergarten through 5th grade school at 80 Willoughby Street (75 kindergarten seats, with 50 more added each year till it reaches 300 seats, opening September 2013), and the middle school planned at the Dock Street project in Dumbo (300 seats, no ETA). But these new seats do not come remotely close to accounting for the number of new students listed above. Furthermore, Brooklyn Prospect enrolls students based on a lottery that doesn’t give preference to local residents.
Shamefully, the only people drawing attention to this issue are a single graduate student and one grass roots organization, Downtown Brooklyn School Solutions. Our elected officials have chosen to completely ignore this impending crisis.
Steps we can take to proactively solve this problem:
Use tax abatements and zoning changes such as FAR (floor area ratio) increases to incentivize the building of schools alongside major developments. Due to a failure of leadership and foresight from our elected officials, the opportunity has been lost to require major developments like City Point (1,290 housing units), Avalon Willoughby (860 units), and BKLYN Gold (510 units, with a large footprint) to include plans for a school as part of their projects. Still, several opportunities exist: Forest City Ratner’s development at 10 Metrotech and the redevelopment of the parking garage at 300 Livingston Street could be ideal. Downtown Brooklyn School Solutions also suggests five other locations.
Rezone current elementary school districts to zone students from Brooklyn Heights, Downtown Brooklyn, and Dumbo to attend PS 287 and PS 307 which together have just over 400 open seats. Note that these schools are both historically underperforming. So it’s not good enough to simply rezone and flood these open seats: We (both the DOE and us parents!) need to also commit time and resources to improving educational outcomes at PS 287 and 307—something that should be done regardless of Downtown overcrowding issues.
Push the School Construction Authority to fund and fast-track the building of a new school in Downtown Brooklyn. As an alternative to building a new school form the ground up, encourage the city to repurpose one of their existing municipal or high school buildings in Downtown to house an elementary or middle school.
Expand PS 261 in Boerum Hill in District 15. This school (60 under capacity, presently) is currently built to a FAR of 2.18 while it is allowed to build to 3.0. Additionally, a zoning variance could be sought to allow for an even larger expansion.3
I hope this missive serves as a wake-up call: We need to act quickly to make sure that new schools are built while there’s still some small amount of space to build them, and developers who can still be incentivized. We can’t afford to wait any longer.
3 Page 24 http://goo.gl/kwxnMs
Joseph LaGrand’s research: http://goo.gl/701PCB
Downtown Brooklyn Schools Solutions: http://dobroschools.org
Tucker Reed’s editorial on zoning changes to build schools: http://goo.gl/eBfXy7
A list of existing schools in Downtown Brooklyn and surrounding neighborhoods and their current capacity, see page 11 figure 4: http://goo.gl/701PCB
Current capacity in all Brooklyn schools: http://goo.gl/zxnPvy
Map of 2005 – 2018 Downtown Brooklyn residential developments: http://goo.gl/xTlZGk
Map of 2004 – 2018 new residential developments in P.S. 8′s zone: http://goo.gl/5U7Bpe