Construction on the Chapin School is stirring up controversy in Yorkville

By Alanna Schubach | June 21, 2016 - 9:59AM 

Google Street View of the Chapin School and East 84th Street

The block of East 84th Street between York and East End Avenues is ordinarily a sleepy one by NYC standards, but some residents say that the Chapin School, a prestigious all-girls private school, has been disrupting the neighborhood with a series of noisy and time-consuming construction projects.

Last March, work began on the construction of a new cafeteria; according to the school, the project was necessary because space for students to have meals was inadequate, forcing schedules to be so stretched out that some children had to eat lunch as early as 10:40 a.m. Neighbors complained that the project was particularly noisy, and that construction frequently stretched into late evening hours and weekends. DNAInfo reports that the school was granted dozens of permits by the Department of Buildings to conduct after-hours work—ordinarily, construction hours in NYC are limited to 7 am to 6 pm, Monday through Friday. (The DOB did not respond when contacted for comment.)

And since March, the school has been gearing up for another project: a vertical addition to the campus, which was approved last October, per DNAInfo. In an official statement to Brick Underground, the Chapin School explained that the project "will create essential classroom space and a regulation size gymnasium for Chapin’s young women, as well as allow for other important programmatic enhancements." Some locals, recalling the frustrations of the previous work, are concerned that there are more disruptions—and unsafe conditions—to come.

The school has hosted a series of community meetings to share building plans and address concerns with its neighbors, but some remain wary. “I can say that the school has an attitude of, ‘Nothing will stop us,’” says Lisa Paule, who has been spearheading the community response and authored a petition opposing the vertical construction. “They have a goal and will see it through. That’s how the school has always proceeded.”

Paule and others say that one of their primary worries has to do with obstructions to the flow of traffic on East 84th Street, which in some instances has prevented emergency vehicles from getting through and prompted motorists to drive up on the sidewalk. According to another resident, Retta Blaney, a construction shed has taken up more than two-thirds of the width of the street and caused traffic problems during the cafeteria project. Some neighbors anticipate that the gymnasium work, which requires the use of a crane and an electric hoist, will cause similar backups and put pedestrians' safety at risk. 

“We’ve already had instances where emergency vehicles couldn’t get through to people in our building, because of traffic build-up at the end of our block,” one resident, Victoria Sears Goldman, says. “There was one instance where an elderly man had to be wheeled on a stretcher halfway down the block to an ambulance.”

Paule adds that some drivers have taken dangerous measures to get around the congestion on the block. “In one instance, around 8:30 pm, drivers were backed up on the block and started driving up onto the curb, within inches of an apartment window,” she says. 

To mitigate the congestion, the school encouraged parents to pick up and drop off students on York Avenue during the construction last year. Furthermore, City Councilman Ben Kallos, who represents the neighborhood, wrote in his monthly newsletter that the school was taking steps toward noise and congestion reduction. Kallos thanks Chapin "for being so willing to work with us and the community" and notes that the school "is looking at solutions to prevent cars from driving onto the sidewalk as a result of the lane closure, and I as indicated at the meeting, my office will work with the school and neighbors to assist this effort." 

And Chapin, in its statement, said that it agrees with locals that traffic safety is paramount: "We agree with our neighbors that vehicles need to be able to pass the site safely, so in partnership with the City we are actively exploring a modification to our approved site logistics and overhead protective sidewalk shed on East 84th Street to prevent any bottleneck of traffic from occurring near East End Avenue."

But given the scope of the new project, Paule suspects there will be more of the same traffic problems: “With cranes being positioned in the shed with an elevator, it’s unfathomable that the apparatus will be confined,” she says. “How are we supposed to navigate through all that?” Goldman cites concerns about crane safety, as well: "You hear about these crane accidents. We're right near the river, it's very windy, and there's going to be a 200-foot crane outside my window for who knows how many months." 

Goldman wonders why the construction site can’t be located on East End Avenue, a much wider thoroughfare. “We’ve never really been given a satisfactory explanation,” she says. Blaney adds that when residents have asked their elected officials about moving the construction to East End, they say they're looking into it, but there have been no changes yet. 

The school was granted variances by the Board of Standards and Appeals that allow the three-story enlargement, which residents also question. “We don’t understand why the BSA gave them permission in the first place,” says Blaney. The BSA decision, which can be read here, indicates that in addition to community members’ objections about the environmental impact and other disruptions caused by construction, the Chapin addition also doesn’t comply with several zoning regulations. For instance, the extended height of the school building will exceed the neighborhood maximum, and the enlargement will surpass the permitted floor area for the lot, but the BSA nevertheless issued waivers for Chapin to build new facilities to meet its "programmatic needs."

“There’s been no real explanation from the BSA as to why they were granted the zoning variances,” Goldman says. A BSA spokesperson confirmed that the agency did approve variances to allow the school to expand, but said that questions about the construction fall under the jurisdiction of the DOB.

“The community board overwhelmingly rejected this,” says Blaney, who notes that there is an ongoing lawsuit to try to get the permits revoked. The law firm Fox Rothschild is representing residents of 90 East End Avenue, a condo building next to the school, where homeowners are also worried about the project’s impact on community safety.

In the meantime, the school will host another community meeting later this month. “Maybe they’ll scale back,” Paule says, “but it’s still going to be a massive bombardment. Frankly, construction seven days a week and during evening hours is still way outside the realm of what we’re comfortable with.”

In its statement, Chapin noted that the summer is a key window for construction, as students will be out of the building, and that the school is developing a schedule based on feedback it has received from locals at its public meetings. The statement also points out that the plan "will include a responsive program for upcoming exterior construction activities and for continuing interior after-hours work, which has been ongoing since the beginning of the 2016 while school has been in session and that has resulted in zero calls or complaints regarding noise levels to 311 in recent months." 

On a broader scale, Chapin isn't the only private school to butt heads with its neighbors. Downtown, the Friends Seminary has aroused the ire of locals with its own plans for vertical additions and extensive renovations, according to Curbed; before that, a redesign of the Calhoun School on the Upper West Side was deemed "hideous" by unhappy neighbors, writes DNAInfo


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