Facing a groundswell of opposition to a ritzy private school’s annexation of a public street to the detriment of its neighbors, Community Board 8’s Transportation had the opportunity to take bold action to restore the quality of life for residents living on a small stretch of East 78th Street now under occupation by the Allen-Stevenson School— where tuition costs nearly $57,000. Instead, neighbors pleas were cast aside by Community Board Chair Russell Squire, who even tried to ignore the board’s parliamentary procedures to quash any action— until he was called out.
During the height of the first wave of Covid-19 pandemic in New York City, the DOT introduced its ‘OpenStreets’ program, which actually does the opposite of what its name implies.
‘OpenStreets’ was originally intended to give schools space for outdoor learning, but in practice has allowed a wealthy private school to take over public space, in this case, to the detriment of neighbors— including residents who say they’ve been denied access to get to their own homes, been injured by balls thrown at them by tween boys and cannot even work from home due to the noise of children screaming at the top of their lungs throughout parts of the day.
Last Monday, a new sign was posted by the school to make it clear that cyclists, electric vehicles that need to access public charging stations and patients getting dropped off for doctors appointments are allowed to enter.
However, the multiple times Upper East Site previously visited the nine-hour-a-day street closure for Allen-Stevenson School, we found exactly what neighbors describe:
Hostile security guards who refuse to allow vehicles that are allowed to enter the street during the closure, children screaming so loud they can be heard clearly inside multiple townhouses on East 78th Street and balls thrown hard very close to the back of people’s heads.
“I have been hit by balls and kids,” said neighbor Ann Namm during last Wednesday’s meeting, “It is unsafe for all concerned.”
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“They are kicking balls. They are throwing footballs,” said Dr. Lauren Cassell, a surgeon at nearby Lenox Hill Hospital whose breast cancer patients have had difficulty accessing her home office due to the street closure.
“Those balls were not in the street. Those balls were all over the sidewalk,” the frustrated doctor added.
The Allen-Stevenson School’s Head of School boasted to the committee about how they made sure bicycles had access to the East 78th Street bike lane— however, if you pass by the street, it is usually blocked by one or more delivery trucks, which now use the streets entrance for illegal parking, as well as barriers placed in the way of the bike lane, behind the trucks.
“I live here. I’ve been watching and the bike lane cannot function in conjunction with the children playing in the street,” said neighbor Jacques Blinbaum.
“You can only have one or the other,” Mr. Blinbaum added.
“The few bikes that do get down the street cannot get down the street because the kids will not move,” said Dr. Pamela Lipkin, whose practice is based out of her home on East 78th Street.
“[The students] will not move and allow the bikes to go down the street, so [cyclists] jump on the curb. On one occasion I saw an older woman almost got hit by a bike,” Dr. Lipkin added.
The school’s director of security, Christopher Acerbo, who touted his NYPD credentials as evidence he would never allow any activity that would put students in danger, also denied that children playing in the street, throwing balls and cyclists trying to ride down the block poses any risk— despite neighbors who said they personally witnessed cyclists take evasive maneuvers.
“If I thought for any moment that those students would be any safety concerns, I would not have them out playing on the street,” said Mr. Acerbo.
However, when Upper East Site visited the block in September, following the airing of grievances at last month’s Transportation Committee meeting, we witnessed Allen-Stevenson faculty having difficulties both keeping children and their balls off the sidewalk, as well as getting students out of the street when cars, trucks or bikes needed to pass though.
“I am a bike rider— [an] elderly woman that still rides the bike— and our bike lanes and open streets don’t mix,” said Ms. Namm.
“They’re at complete opposites. Children are running in the bike lanes, bikes are trying to dodge them,” she added.
Allen-Stevenson, which as neighbors point out never had a street closure prior to the Covid-19 pandemic and did just fine, says it needs the space to provide recreation space for the rowdy young boys in kakis and ties because they cannot use their ’playroof’— a sprawling space for children’s activities that can accommodate nearly 300 people on the school’s roof— one of many upgrades the school has seen over recent years, which also includes an extension of the school building designed to look like two townhouses.
“[Allen-Stevenson school] has had that location on 78th Street… since 1924,” said Dr. Cassell.
“I have lived on that block since 1992, and up until the pandemic— and since that time— we did not have this issue,” she added.
The Allen-Stevenson, however, says the ‘playroof’ could not yet be used because the school was waiting for a Certificate of Occupancy, and the required inspections by the FDNY and Department of Buildings.
“We don’t have it authorized. We don’t have the permits. We don’t have the [Certificate of Occupancy] right now, so the the ‘playroof’ is not available to us,” said Acerbo.
After one Community Board member, Michelle Birnbaum, persuaded by neighbors who detailed the hardships the school’s takeover of their street has caused, called for a resolution asking the Department of Transportation to revoke Allen-Stevenson’s street closure— or at least once their ‘playroof’ could be used.
“There was another meeting and this went on and on and on and on and there will was more residents of the street that spoke at that meeting, way more that are here tonight,” Ms. Birnbaum explained to committee members who may have missed the fiery September 7th Transportation Committee meeting.
“The whole point was we didn’t act because we said it was only fair to have Allen-Stevenson come back. Well, okay, here you are. I’ve heard your argument. I’ve heard your concerns. I don’t think it compares with the concerns of the residents, especially since you have an answer,” Birnbaum told the the school’s leadership.
“I don’t see where you will be hurt by this. I didn’t say end it tomorrow. I said end it when you get your play roof. Now you say you need time to plan. Well, you should have started yesterday,” she added.
Before a vote could be taken on that measure, another board member asked whether he could move to table the discussion— kicking the can to November or December— and once he got the okay he moved to do so.
Community Board 8 Chair Russell Squire was quick to allow this violation of parliamentary procedure to happen, because avoiding taking action about the more than two-year-long inconvenience was exactly what Mr. Squire desired.
“I am optimistic and sort of hopeful that something can be done and I would just sort of suggest that you guys continue to discuss this, and just sort of give it another month and try to figure out something that’s going to work for everybody,”Squire said, continuing his trend of slow-walking emotionally-charged issues that hit close to home.
Mr. Squire— who has come under fire from neighbors for retaliating against Shake Shack over hurt feelings— did get called out by another board member, Judy Schneider, who knows the rules of the board well and told Squire he was flat out wrong.
“If you talk, you cannot put a motion on the floor after that. You have to put the motion on the floor first, and then talk to the issue. [Community Board Member Mohit Agrawal] did talk before he put the motion on the floor. Therefore, he could not the motion isn’t valid,” said Schneider.
“I hope you understand what I said, Russell.”
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In the end, the Transportation Committee did table the discussion, taking zero action to help neighbors whose lives and businesses have been turned upside down by DOT-approved land grab— which as the Allen-Stevenson Schools points out, allows them to close the street just so students’ parents and nannies have an easier time dropping off their children in the morning.
“The wording on the DOT website defines the Open Street program for a full closure for schools as such,” said Mr. Acerbo, “full closures for public, private and charter schools to support drop off and pickup operations, recess and outdoor learning.’”
Allen-Stevenson’s Head of School repeatedly stressed that he wanted to work with neighbors to find a middle ground, however, Upper East Site has learned he was less than truthful about the source of ‘playroof’s’ opening delays– which he points to as the need for the street closure.
“Without getting into technical details— yes, we are waiting for FDNY to sign off and DOB to sign off. We are told it will be within weeks-to-months. So we’re somewhere in that timeframe,” said Head of School Duncan Lyon.
The Department of Buildings tells Upper East Site that once the school finishes construction, they can request an inspection and ask that their Temporary Certificate of Occupancy be updated to include the ‘playroof,’ so that children may begin using it.
While the FDNY says that the school is scheduled for inspection later this month, at this point, Allen-Stevenson has not requested an inspection by the Department of Buildings, Upper East Site has confirmed.
“You know, it’s just not fair,” said Dr. Cassell, pleading to the committee, “We would like our street back.”
The Allen-Stevenson School did not respond to Upper East Site’s request for comment.
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