School Construction Authority missing in action

Neighbors decide to let court decide their claim: the Visitation process is broken


Community Board 8 was forced to cancel a much-anticipated meeting on the public school proposed for 160 Van Cortlandt Park South last Friday when School Construction Authority officials backed out with only a few days’ notice, citing a mysterious lawsuit against them.

“SCA has been advised by counsel that they cannot attend this meeting due to pending litigation.

“Therefore, this meeting with SCA is canceled,” wrote district manager Ciara Gannon in a Dec. 5 email notice.

CB8’s officers could only speculate about the details of the suit emanating from a small group of neighbors on Van Cortlandt Park South, a shady thoroughfare in Kingsbridge that cuts across the Major Deegan Expressway.

“I’ve been told it’s a group of residents representing themselves,” said CB8 chair Laura Spalter. “But I know nothing further.”

Spalter wanted a meeting with the SCA to take place before the end of the year in time to weigh in on the architectural designs of the new school, she said. Now, her hopes have been dashed.

The board’s committee chairs aired their frustration and bewilderment in the executive committee meeting two days later.

Whether or not the litigation has any merit, “it has enabled SCA to hide behind the pendency of a lawsuit and cancel the meeting,” land use chair Charles Moerdler said.

“I sincerely believe they just don’t want to meet,” he said.

And he may be correct. But CB8 has little recourse at this point.

The education committee voted to approve the SCA’s site selection a year ago, concluding the community board’s brief advisory role in the new school construction process. Like other public authorities that maintain New York’s bridges and highways, finance higher education, and run its mass transit systems, the SCA’s public accountability is limited. It does not follow the city’s land use review process or register its contracts in the city checkbook.

Community participation in new school construction is comprised of a series of public hearings and a 45-day comment period after SCA announces its site selection but usually before it begins environmental assessment or design.

The SCA presented its plans to CB8 twice late last fall, first to the land use committee on Dec. 7, 2021, and then to the education committee on Dec. 22, 2021. There was no time to hold a public hearing before the comment period concluded Jan. 3, 2022.

When The Riverdale Press put the question to the SCA, spokesperson Kevin Ortiz pointed to the two committee presentations.

But did he agree the community board and SCA failed to hold a public hearing on the site selection? “That is false,” Ortiz replied. “Site selection was discussed.”

The other shoe drops

Predictably, the issue roared back to life this fall.

Christina Carlson is part of group of co-op owners at 180 Van Cortlandt Park South who sprang into action when news broke in late August of the immanent transformation of the two-acre lot next door. Parents watched their kids grow up as the deconsecrated Church of the Visitation slowly returned to a state of nature, claimed by weeds and ivy.

A new school had long been rumored for the site. Early renderings by the SCA show a low, L-shaped building with a 26,000-square-foot playground occupying about half the block.

Karen Argenti, a board member of the Bronx Council for Environmental Quality, came across the sketch in an unpublished appendix to the SCA’s phase 1 environmental study of the property, and shared it with The Press. The large green space in the earlier rendering would have been more appropriate for a property abutting the city’s coastal floodplain, Argenti noted. It runs north along the seam of the Major Deegan Expressway.

“We’re at the lowest point in the bathtub,” Argenti said.

By 2100, city planning maps predict the floodplain will fan out across much of the low-lying Tibbetts Brook valley. The city is yet to put forward a comprehensive plan to manage stormwater runoff on privately owned property, and still prioritizes off-street accessory parking in outer-borough neighborhoods – a major contributor to flash floods with potentially devastating consequences.

At some point, the SCA discarded the renderings for a two-acre public school.

CB8’s December 2021 resolution approving a much smaller, half-acre school site never made it across Carlson’s radar. When she learned what had transpired, she said she was “horrified beyond words.”

The New York archdiocese sold the property in August for $29 million, but only a small subdivision went to the SCA, consistent with the plans presented to CB8 in December 2021.

Real estate developer Tishman Speyer purchased the remaining 1.3 acres, and quickly filed permits for an eight-story residential building with 336 affordable units. The project is as-of-right, or pre-approved by the city planning department.

“Nobody is against affordable housing or against developing it,” Carlson said. “But this is a prison block. And it’s the first public school in the area in over two decades. Are you telling me we can’t do better for our children?”

A tight rope walk for CB8

Land use chair Charles Moerdler has remained cautiously optimistic. Tishman Speyer’s new affordable housing managing director, Gary Rodney, previously served alongside Moerdler as the president of the city’s Housing Development Corp. But Moerdler’s enthusiasm waned when he saw the firm’s architectural renderings. The building looked like “the Pentagon,” he said.

With characteristic understatement, land use committee member Rosemary Ginty said Tishman Speyer’s presentation was “a bit thin.”

Moerdler has invited Rodney back for another meeting with the land use committee, but Tishman Speyer has so far declined. The SCA, too, has taken a rain check on CB8’s repeated invitations this fall, including a public hearing that took place on Zoom Sep. 29 without SCA officials present.

The public authority will continue to work on the preliminary designs for the new school, following the project’s original timeline targeting 2027 for the school to open.

Interest rates meanwhile have edged steadily upwards, straining construction financing across the city and country.

Moerdler said in last week’s executive committee meeting that he wanted to work with, rather than against, Tishman Speyer. Assemblyman Jeffrey Dinowitz has also been in talks with the firm about the building’s design, and in particular the number of units, which he would like to reduce.

“It’s been a quiet, amicable kind of a negotiation,” Moerdler said at the meeting, “which I am loathe to upset because it’s very easy for them to say ‘go to hell’ because it’s as-of-right.”

“If I hear ‘as-of-right’ one more time, I’m going to scream,” countered Ginty. “We have people in front of us all the time. You explain what you’re doing and let the community talk about their concerns.”

‘The only option’

Carlson couldn’t help but wonder if things might have gone differently if a public hearing had taken place last year, as required by statute.

“I pored over the CB8 minutes,” Carlson said. “There should have been a public hearing.”

She couldn’t let it fall by the wayside. The SCA broke the law by skipping this step, Carlson claims in an Article 78 petition she filed Nov. 14 in Bronx Civil Supreme Court along with her neighbors, co-petitioners Marie O’Shea and Marlene Peralta.

Article 78 proceedings are a way to appeal the decision of a local agency or public body.

The SCA also should have prepared an environmental impact statement, they claim, – a rigorous review of the development’s potential impacts on the environment.

The pro se litigants will face an uphill battle. But Carlson said she was getting nowhere attending CB8 meetings.

“If the community board couldn’t sway SCA and Tishman Speyer to act in good faith, the only option was Article 78, she said. “I had never heard of it myself.”

Carlson is a quick study. She’s been consulting with a network of activists around the city, she said. “They are very willing to help and talk about their own Article 78 experiences, what worked, what didn’t work.”

For now, the case is adjourned until February. The SCA will not attend any meetings with CB8 in the interim, Ortiz confirmed with The Press.

But he said, “as an aside, I would like to reiterate our ongoing commitment to engage with the board and other community stakeholders about this much-needed school.”

Abigail Nehring is a corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms.