Testimony in Support of Spence Field House for Use by Local Public Schools

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Good afternoon, I am New York City Council Member Ben Kallos. I am here today to address the application by the Spence School to the Board for a zoning variance to allow for the construction of a field house at 412 East 90th Street, in Council District 5, which I represent. Thank you to Chair Perlmutter and the members and staff of the Board for having me today.

As you know, the Spence School, a private, all girls K-12 school located at 22 East 91st Street purchased this site, at 412 East 90th Street, in 2011. The lot is zoned C8-4, allowing for a mix of commercial and manufacturing uses, and before the school purchased the building it had been operated as a garage.

Although similar uses still exist at nearby buildings, including multiple garages, the area surrounding the site has over time become heavily residential, and the garage was not an ideal use for this neighborhood. Residents often complained about the garage and I personally saw cars often being driven out of the garage down a one way street in the wrong direction.

The intended use by the Spence School of a field house for its students fills an established need for the school, whose current athletics program uses the school’s primary building, Central Park, and a mix of field houses and athletic facilities through the neighborhood. But it also presents an opportunity for the surrounding neighborhood, which lacks in park space and is always in need of additional recreational facilities.

When I first met with the Spence School to discuss this application, in January of 2017, Head of School Bodie Brizendine indicated to me that the school was serious about outreach to the community, both to communicate clearly about issues around construction of the new facility, and to establish productive uses for the space that would benefit the community as a whole.

As a Council Member, I have visited every public school in my district and almost every private school, and one of the things that I first started noticing when I went to my public schools was that very few of them have full size gyms, if they have any recreational space at all. School children in old buildings on the dense Upper East Side make do with the space they have, taking recess in closed streets, cafeterias, or classrooms.

I was therefore pleased that when I raised this issue, Head of School Brizendine indicated that the field house could be made available to neighboring public schools, in part because the Spence School’s need for the space was primarily after school, as it is a supplementary space to the school’s two already-existing teaching gyms.

I have been further pleased that in the ensuing months, discussions have proceeded among my office, the Spence School, neighboring schools P.S. 151 and P.S. 527, and the Department of Education.

P.S. 527, known as the East Side School for Social Action, is located at 323 E 91st Street, one avenue west and one block north of the Spence field house site. P.S. 527 is a lower school with 388 students enrolled, but which uses as its recreation space an auditorium with a sloped floor and ceiling that starts out very low.

P.S. 151, known as Yorkville Community School, is located at 421 East 88th Street, two blocks south of the proposed field house. Yorkville Community School has 515 lower school students enrolled with two classrooms that have been converted into recreational spaces. One features a mirror and bar on the wall, somehow making it a “dance studio,” and the other classroom is half the size of this hearing room, with basketball hoops mounted at one another’s three point lines. You can get a sense of the conditions if you asked everyone in the audience today to get up from their seats and start running around in a circle on their side of the room. It is a challenge to say the least, and I am concerned that children are not getting the physical education they need, something the Mayor has recognized citywide but not yet for this district.

Although I would prefer to have a memorandum of understanding in place ahead of the Board’s approval of this variance request, I have enclosed correspondence memorializing our agreement, and my understanding is that if the Board approves this application:

  • The Spence School will be opening its new building in time for the beginning of the 2019-2020 school year.
  • Access arrangements for P.S. 151 and P.S. 527 will be in place at that time so that the gymnasium will be available for P.S. 151 and P.S. 527 for their physical education curricula during school day hours, at no cost to the public schools.
  • Once Spence and the two schools have agreed to the essential program elements and a schedule for utilization, Spence and the Department of Education will enter into whatever binding agreements are customary for the Department of Education to require when utilizing off-site private spaces for physical education purposes, subject to whatever terms and conditions Spence may require in providing the City a license to enter on the Spence property.
  • The three schools will report quarterly to my office on progress of this arrangement, with the understanding that I may request a meeting with all concerned if I fail to see sufficient progress for the preparation of access in time for the 2019-2020 school year.

While acknowledging that substantive follow-up will be required to turn these intentions into a reality, I am pleased that the Spence School, the principals of P.S. 151 and P.S. 527, and the Department of Education have agreed in principal to the common goal of opening a state of the art recreational facility to our local public-school students, and to the stated timeline for doing so.

Thank you to the Spence School for making this a priority and for taking seriously its commitment to serving our shared community.

With the above understanding, I recommend the Board approve this application.