By Alan Chapell
Seems like the West Village has become one of the busiest neighborhoods in NYC for development. One by one, our precious open spaces are being plugged in—all in the name of progress. But as the methodical drumbeat of development marches onward, it might be worth asking ourselves if all of this so called progress is worth the price.
You may know that the Village Community School (VCS) is looking to expand on top of its existing playground on West 10th and Greenwich Streets. You also may not know about it—as VCS has been very quiet as they’ve planned this project out over the past five years. Just under a week ago, and after pressure from the local community, VCS agreed to provide hundreds of pages in documentation outlining their plans for expansion. As you might imagine, digesting that information is going to take some time, but here’s what we know so far.
VCS is planning to dig one or two stories into the ground to create a full size gym and build up an additional three stories. According to the VCS website, those stories are for “dedicated classrooms for each discipline, larger modern labs for science, technology, engineering, art and math [STEAM] courses.”
The structure will include a large glass building and a number of features that objectively don’t look like anything I’ve seen in the neighborhood. And I’m not the only one who feels that way. At the October 15 CB2 Landmarks hearing, Jonathan Marvel, the school’s architect, admitted that he was being “playful” with his design, to the raised eyebrows of Landmarks Community Board members who questioned whether playfulness has any role to play in historic preservation. I was surprised to hear Mr. Marvel publicly say “rules are meant to be broken” when defending his design choices to the CB2 Landmarks committee—perhaps indicating that the rules don’t apply to his team of developers.
In order to build on the entire footprint of the open playground, VCS has asked for a zoning variance. This is not the first variance that VCS has requested over the years. Back in 2001, VCS asked the village community for a variance so they could increase their footprint at West 10th Street and Washington Street. In fact, one of the school’s rationale for the 2001 variance was to enable them to keep the open space playground—the very same open space playground that VCS wants permission to demolish in 2018.
The VCS design team has emphasized that they will not increase enrollment as a result of the expansion. It’s worth noting that the school made similar promises the last time they expanded back in the early 2000’s. Did the school keep their previous promise not to increase enrollment? I don’t know. My research indicates that VCS’ enrollment was 302 students when they asked for their variance around 2002, and that VCS’ enrollment is currently 358. Are these numbers accurate? I have no idea—but they would certainly explain why VCS parents are so vocal about the current problem with overcrowding at the school. Moreover, they indicate that VCS actually increased the number of students enrolled by nearly 19% since 2002—the last time VCS was granted a variance by promising not to increase their enrollment.
As a private school, they may think they can keep their enrollment statistics out of the public eye, but it seems like this process should shine a light on whether they have been complying with the enrollment limits imposed on them when they sought their last zoning variance. And if enrollment had remained constant— as required—why were so many VCS parents complaining about overcrowding at the hearings as part of the justification for expansion? Had the school really been overcrowded all this time? If VCS wants to add yet another 50 students over the next decade, or even if they think there’s a chance that this might happen, why not simply say so? Their lack of transparency is concerning to say the least.
The next question that might come to mind is—why does VCS need to expand? I can certainly understand that any school would want a bigger gym, more classrooms, and modern labs. But that’s a different question than whether they “need” them. And even here, the school’s rationale has changed over the past couple of months. When I first chatted about the project with VCS Head of School Eve Kleger this past August, I was told that the primary driver for their project was the imminent loss of services of Pier 40. And page six of the statement of facts VCS submitted in support of the 2018 variance indicates that Pier 40’s imminent closing has been the primary impetus for their proposed expansion. However, it’s safe to say that this rationale was the subject of some criticism at the Oct 10th CB2 hearing—in part because Pier 40 apparently is not closing any time soon.
Fortunately for them, VCS found a different reason—student safety. According to multiple VCS parents who testified at both CB2 hearings, having students playing in an open-air playground is unsafe. Hence, the parents feel the students will be better protected on a playground placed on top of the new three-story building. As a parent, I can certainly understand how important it is to keep our kids safe. But if that was what’s really driving this, why wasn’t that the first thing mentioned? And while we’re on the subject, does anyone honestly think that NYC parks are unsafe for our children? Are we to believe that VCS parents have or will soon stop taking their children to any of NYC’s open-air parks as a result of these safety concerns?
You may be thinking that the playground is VCS’ property and the school has a right to do what it pleases. I would agree—up to a point. But it’s also true that there are zoning ordinances that have been in place for a long time. And those zoning ordinances are there in part to help protect the natural character of the west village. VCS already received a variance so they could expand after the year 2001. And just over a decade later, they are back asking for another variance. And I’ll bet you a cup of coffee that sooner or later, VCS will be back asking for yet another variance so they can build something else.
So, the issues here are relatively simple. When is bigger not better? And where do we want to draw the line? I’m not suggesting that there are simple answers. But for the sake of preserving the history of perhaps the most storied neighborhood in all of NYC, let’s collectively take a breath. And let’s at least have an honest and transparent discussion about these questions before plowing ahead.
Alan Chapell is a musician and long-time resident of the West Village.