Who Forgot the Schools?

Who Forgot the Schools?

By the time new public schools finally open in Downtown Brooklyn in 2021, Chris Young’s daughter will be on her way to college. That would be ten years after he and his family moved into the area, and nearly two decades after the city unveiled an ambitious plan to reimagine the neighborhood that somehow failed to account for children.

Young is the co-founder of Downtown Brooklyn School Solutions, an advocacy group that has been lobbying the city to correct the problem it set in motion in 2004 and to build enough schools to accommodate the children it did not anticipate.

“I hope the community will start to coalesce around the new schools that will serve as a brand new neighborhood,” Young said.

That neighborhood will be very different than the one the city, and then-Mayor Michael Bloomberg, envisioned in the course of re-imagining Downtown Brooklyn and several other neighborhoods since 9/11. The idea then was to make the neighborhood a magnet for high-paying tech jobs by building high-rise office space. Little did they know what would happen when people began to move in.

“We didn’t want to put too many constraints on developers,” said Robert Perris, the Community Board 2 District Manager. “We were just so desperate for Downtown Brooklyn to redevelop that we will take whatever happens. 2004 was before Brooklyn really became a brand.”

At the time, the need and answer seemed clear: attract more office and commercial buildings in Downtown Brooklyn through rezoning that would allow more commercial and business high-rises. 

City planners, the Bloomberg administration, and developers wanted to attract and retain businesses that would otherwise end up in Manhattan or New Jersey. According to the city’s final environmental impact statement – a forward-looking document that often lays out the positive and negative environmental effects of a proposed plan – city planners expected 6.5 million square feet of development by 2013 comprised of 4.6 million square feet of office space and 844,000 square feet of retail. 

About a tenth of that combined square footage – 979,000 square feet – was set aside for residential development.

In documents and presentations before residents and the City Council, city planners expected no more than 979 new residential units by 2013. The city estimated the redevelopment would bring in only 278 elementary school students and 103 middle school students. City planners did not see any adverse impact on the existing schools nearby. The City Council approved the rezoning two months later and with it, the die was cast. 

“Because the rezoning plan wasn’t supposed to be for residential buildings, there was no plan for a school,” said Perris.

Among the new arrivals was Chris Young, who moved to downtown in 2010 when his daughter was nine months old. It was only when she was in preschool that he and his wife started looking for school options, he said.

“We started to realize that there was no public elementary school located in Downtown Brooklyn at the time,” he said. “We knew we were living in the midst of a lot of high-rise construction that was going to bring thousands of people so this was a concern for our neighbors as well.” 

So how did this happen? How did the city get it so wrong?

Researchers from the Municipal Art Society of New York, a nonprofit that is engaged in city planning and urban design, found that 3.3 million square feet of residential development had been built – three times greater than what city planners had expected in 2004. Only 11,800 square feet of office space had been completed by 2018.

In other words, the developers had pivoted. Instead of building office space, they started building high-rise homes.

MSA researchers found that more than 3,000 housing units were built on rezoned sites by 2013. An additional 8,457 units have since been constructed on rezoned lots. The reasoning was financial.

“What resulted was almost exclusively market-rate residential,” Perris said, “because you’ll make much more money on a residential building than you will on an office building.”

As a result, the MAS researchers concluded, “The gross underestimation of residential development has greatly exacerbated overcrowding in area public schools.” 

Adams had come to the same conclusion two years earlier in 2016. “Unfortunately, much of the premise for the rezoning has not been met, namely making Downtown Brooklyn a 21st Century business and commercial district,” he wrote. “I can definitively say that development of Downtown Brooklyn over the past 11 years has been centered on the creation of a residential enclave proximate to the surrounding Brownstone Brooklyn neighborhoods.”

Not only did new people move in, but many were looking to start a family – or like Chris Young and his wife, already had. Those with school age children discovered overcrowded schools. And families who had to send their children to schools in nearby districts, often ended up trekking through busy city streets, said Young. 

In 2013, Councilman Stephen Levin, who represents the area, wrote a letter to support the construction of a new downtown elementary school. “In addition to not having enough capacity, the school that most students are currently zoned (in) requires them to cross dangerous intersections to reach it,” he noted, echoing the sentiment of concerned parents.

Downtown, then and now, is served by schools across two districts: District 13, which covers Brooklyn Heights, Fort Greene, Clinton Hill, Prospect Heights, Bed-Stuy and Park Slope; and District 15, which covers Boerum HIll, Cobble Hill, and everything south of Fulton Street.

Enrollment figures from the state Department of Education showed that some of those schools were over capacity. In 2015 Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams, along with other city and business leaders, wrote a letter to the city School Construction Authority – which oversees design, construction and renovation of public schools – to take immediate action: “Unless action is taken now to build new space[s] to address this shortfall, Downtown Brooklyn could be in the midst of a major school capacity crisis.” 

A year later, Adams’s office conducted an analysis of the 2004 rezoning plan; he wrote in the report to downtown residents that the neighborhood “is bearing a burden of unanticipated new residential development without a comparable level of infrastructure to sustainably support a growing 24-hour community.”

Rather than the modest projections for new students, the influx brought in ten times as many as planned for – 2,621 elementary school students, 1,009 middle school students and 676 high school students, the MSA researchers found.

According to an analysis conducted by the Brooklyn Ink of enrollment numbers at public schools in District 13 and 15 using data from the state Department of Education, almost all schools saw an uptick in students.

PS 8 Robert Hill, zoned in District 13, started with 369 students in 2005. In 2013, the school started enrolling grades six through eight, and by 2017 the enrollment jumped to 916.

To ease some of the crowding, Young said, three or four nearby charter schools that opened up helped absorb some of the excess demand of students in downtown. 

But even with those additional seats, the city knew it would need more schools. 

Now, at least two public schools are slated to open in the next several years. Development projects underway at One Willoughby Square and 80 Flatbush Ave. are expected to a total of three schools to the district and will alleviate some of the overcrowding.

“It’ll be almost 20 years of residential construction before the first school is built,” said Perris.

School officials struck a deal in 2017 with developers of One Willoughby Square, the 34-story tower, to include a 300-seat school on its first six floors. Construction is expected to be completed by 2021. 

“With over 300 seats, this project is a meaningful investment that supports our growing neighborhoods,” said Lorraine Grillo, President of the NYC School Construction Authority, in 2017.

The 80 Flatbush Ave. development, which recently began demolition of the existing site, is expected to have two new schools – a 350-seat elementary school and a new high school to replace the Khalil Gibran International Academy, which occupies the lot.

“It’s expensive to build a school in the city with vanishing amounts of public land left,” said Young, “so the city is pretty much left to private developers that can help incorporate schools into their new buildings, which is the case for all three schools coming to downtown.” 

With three new schools in the works, Young said his group has met its primary goal.  

“We have accomplished what we wanted – for the city to build the schools and everything else will take its course, but there’s not much we can do as a group,” Young said. “We’re pretty much at the end of the line.”

Still, even now, 15 years later, the original plan still has its boosters.

In a rah-rah 2016 report prepared for the Downtown Brooklyn Partnership, the local economic development corporation, researchers from New York University’s Rudin Center for Transportation said the 2004 rezoning plan should be a blueprint for other cities to emulate.

The report, “Downtown Rising: How Brooklyn became a model for urban development,” touted the “flexibility” within the rezoning language that gave developers wide latitude to build to what the market was telling them.

“While the primary objective of the authors of the Downtown Brooklyn Plan was to encourage new commercial office development, the 2004 rezoning was flexible enough to permit a surge in residential development,” NYU researchers wrote.

Among key findings and suggestions: “The surge in development in Downtown Brooklyn following the 2004 rezoning highlights the value of flexible permissive zoning and land use policies. The City should avoid trying to achieve narrowly defined policy objectives by enacting overly-detailed zoning restrictions and prescriptions.”

And more recently, Marisa Lago, Director of the Department of City Planning and Chairwoman of the City Planning Commission, said the new housing in downtown had attracted a new workforce, which brought new businesses and jobs to the neighborhood.

“As expert (as) DCP’s planners are, we do not have a crystal ball,” Lago said, according to her prepared remarks. “So sometimes the evolution of rezoned neighborhood happens in a different sequence than anticipated.”

Referring to the rezonings in downtown and in Long Island City, Lago said the economy revolved as many back-office jobs diminished through automation. 

“These neighborhoods today are at the forefront of the nation’s high-tech and creative economy,” she said, “and this is occurring because our zoning was flexible enough to let housing lead the way.”

Even if that wasn’t exactly the plan.

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