City taps Visitation site for school and housing

Land use committee takes first look at new campus planned for Kingsbridge area

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An empty red shopping cart sits in a large, vacant and trashed yard next to what was once the home of the Church of the Visitation of the Blessed Virgin Mary.

Empty ArchCare buses sit abandoned. Nearby, the 1 train can be heard rumbling past the West 238th Street Station. Across Van Cortlandt Park South, a sign directs drivers northbound toward Manhattan College, less than a half mile away. A playground lies dormant.

It’s been five years since the parochial school at Visitation closed its doors for good. But soon, there may be a new crop of children running around after the bell rings. After what has been years of speculation and even neighborhood advocacy, the city’s education department is set to turn the deconsecrated church site at John Collins Place between Van Cortlandt Park South and West 239th Street into a new school it says will educate around 700 kids.

The city’s School Construction Authority unveiled plans for the new school to Community Board 8’s land use committee last week on the prime Kingsbridge half-acre. But that also means saying farewell to all of the existing church and school structures already there.

“We want to work with a developer and build a school on the property,” said Nicole Holloway, the construction authority’s Bronx representative. “We’re not looking to take over any of the existing buildings on the property.”

The presentation was part of the standard new school process, where details are sent to the city’s community education council and local community board before heading to the city council for final approval. The process includes input from a number of city agencies like the fire and transportation departments, as well as an environmental review addressing traffic impacts, parking, noise and pollution.

Sylvia Alexander, the chair of CB8’s education committee, told The Riverdale Press she caught wind of the proposal just as December started. She immediately addressed how full classrooms are in local schools, a long-standing issue.

“It was overcrowded then,” Alexander said. “And it’s still overcrowded.”

Schools in this part of the Bronx are considered part of District 10, which includes some 85 schools. And some new ones as well like the P.S. 340 Annex in Kingsbridge Heights and the P.S. 33 Annex in Fordham Heights, both of which opened last September. Two additional schools, Jonas Bronck Academy in Fordham Heights and a new school on Morris Avenue near Claremont Park are also in the works.

But new schools don’t always mean overcrowding is being addressed. That’s what makes what’s proposed for the Visitation site different, however.

“There are arts and charter schools, but not regular public schools,” Alexander said. “So, you know, that is exciting. And the possibility that the classes will be a little bit smaller.”

Rosemary Ginty, a member of the land use committee, still has doubts — not about the proposed school, but by what she said was an accompanying housing development.

“Those two together present interesting land use issues,” Ginty said. “Given the streets around there, the traffic, the congestion.”

But the housing project is “completely independent” of the proposed school project, construction authorities said. It’s “not a package deal.”

“We are absolutely coordinating as we would with a next-door neighbor in a residential house,” Holloway said.

The project’s developer, however, expressed differently. In a statement to The Riverdale Press, Tishman Speyer said “redevelopment would incorporate both” the school and the housing complex.

But then there’s also the school itself. Some of the hope from neighbors advocating opening a public school on the site was that it might be a middle school, providing somewhere close students from nearby elementary schools could progress to. Instead, the education department plans to open an elementary school.

“I’m a little concerned that it’s going to be another elementary school,” said Richard Espinal, a former parent association president of nearby P.S. 7 Milton Fein School. “One of the things we desperately need in the area is another middle school.”

P.S. 7 in Kingsbridge teaches children up through fifth grade, while P.S./M.S. 95 Sheila Mencher in Van Cortlandt Village continues on through eighth.

Even when this particular school opens, there will still be significant overcrowding in this part of the Bronx. The school district needs room for about 3,000 more students, according to the construction authority, as part of a system serving just over 53,000.

But even this school won’t alleviate any of those issues in the near term. Holloway expects the environmental review process won’t begin until at least next spring or possible early summer.

“We are compelled by statute to complete a full-blown process that takes us approximately four to six months,” Holloway said. “At this point, we’ve only done evaluations to determine this is a suitable site.”

The next stop for the construction authority, however, is Alexander’s education committee, joining them online Dec. 22. Yet, the authority doesn’t anticipate sharing much more than it already has with land use.

But if everything goes well, Alexander anticipates this new school could open in 2027. In the meantime, she still has questions that need answering — like where the school buses will drop children off, and what grades the school will ultimately serve.

“We don’t know where the children will be coming from,” Alexander said. “We don’t know anything really at this point.”

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