A pending deal to build a charter school in the heart of a public housing development could herald a new long-term strategy for the cash-strapped New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA). The Harlem Children’s Zone (HCZ), which has provided education and services to underprivileged children since 1997, is in talks to buy a plot of land at the center of the St. Nicholas Houses in Central Harlem, home to one of the highest percentages of unused NYCHA development rights in the city.
With the help of a recent $20 million donation from Goldman Sachs, HCZ plans to build a combination charter school and community center on 130,000 square feet of open space in St. Nicholas, which spans a superblock from 127th to 131st streets, between 7th and 8th avenues. Children of the residents of St. Nicholas would be given priority in enrollment, and the center would house classes for adults as well as universally accessible facilities like a gym and health center.
The deal affords NYCHA the opportunity to break up the superblock and reconnect it to the surrounding street grid. The section of West 129th Street that runs through St. Nicholas was demapped when the project was built, and it currently ends in a cul-de-sac before it reaches 8th Avenue. In order to provide a streetscape for the new school, and to make it easier for buses to pick up and drop off students, NYCHA has proposed extending West 129th Street all the way to 8th Avenue and putting it back on the New York City map.
The goal is a desirable one because, as the planning community learned from its experiments of the midcentury, superblocks can be isolating and difficult to police. “The idea [to reconnect West 129th Street] is that you would have more lighting, more eyes on the street, and more activity, which would help increase the level of safety,” explained Ilene Popkin, NYCHA’s assistant deputy general manager for development. If all goes according to plan, St. Nicholas could set the stage for similar interventions in the future. “This has the potential to be a model,” Popkin said.
The project marks a notable step for NYCHA in other ways. The agency has suffered budget shortfalls since 2002, with an estimated $139 million deficit this year. Community services have been significantly cut to make ends meet, so NYCHA has been seeking to partner with private organizations to pick up the slack. The way NYCHA sees it, deals like this one with a private developer solve multiple structural problems simultaneously: breaking up a superblock, reducing a major deficit, and providing additional services at the same time.
While some residents have worried that the HCZ sale represents a slide toward privatization that could end up putting public housing residents on the street, NYCHA insists those fears are unfounded. “It’s a sentiment I encounter all the time, but there is no truth to it,” Popkin said. “We are absolutely not selling the public housing.”