Tribeca Parents Square Off Over P.S. 234

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Photo: NYC.gov

One reason for a certain smugness in the Tribeca parent is that they possess the ultimate public amenity: P.S. 234, the local elementary school sometimes considered the best in the city. "We could send the twins to private school, but for the 60 or 70 thousand dollars that costs there's 234 instead," one doctor told me. And so even the wealthiest Tribeca residents could feel like participants in the great democratic experiment that is the New York City school system — while not compromising junior's Ivy League future. "We want our child to have a public-school experience" is the kind of phrase you hear from the Tribeca doctor.

But now the Board of Education is in the process of rezoning Tribeca, and even some children who live across the street from P.S. 234 may no longer qualify to attend. Rezoning has proceeded in fits and starts for several months, but in December the Board of Ed released its third and, it hopes, final rezoning proposal to a school auditorium crowded with anxious, angry Tribeca parents who proceeded to shout at officials and at each other.

Who gets to attend P.S. 234 changes with each plan. So when Elizabeth Rose, director of portfolio planning in the Department of Education, announced the latest variation, relieved applause erupted from a portion of the crowd that now found itself within the 234 zone. Michael Markowitz, a member of the District 2 Community Education Council zoning committee, which must approve the plans, turned on the cheerers: "This is not a kickball game. Be considerate of your neighbors." Yet, of course, it is a competition that, as one competitor tells me, "pits neighbor against neighbor."

The cause of the problem is easy to see. Just look at the skyline. The building boom of the past half-dozen years has reshaped Tribeca, adding residential high-rises where once there were almost none, leading to an explosion of school-age kids. There's 200 Chambers Street, for example, a newer 30-story and 258-unit building located in the same complex as P.S. 234. Across the street from P.S. 234 is 101 Warren Street, another new 35-story building with 228 units. Both condo complexes pamper residents with hotel-like services: doormen, pool, concierge, and, in the case of 101 Warren, an indoor forest — 101 trees planted in an indoor atrium. Both have been advertised as "zoned for 234."

For upper-middle-class parents, the anxiety isn't manufactured, particularly in this economy. High-paying jobs are less secure — or, in some cases, gone — and private schools are more difficult to pull off. Tuition continues to rise despite the recession, and competition for the spots is ferocious. Many Tribeca residents who are wealthy on paper feel squeezed and more reliant than ever on quality public education, raising the stakes. "One reason we moved here was for 234," Ilya Mazur, of 89 Murray Street, one block from the school, told the Tribeca Trib, "but now it seems like that isn't going to happen. We will be very unhappy if it doesn't. This is the future of our kids." But someone has to lose. Last year, a head count found 231 eligible kindergartners in the P.S. 234 zone. That's the equivalent of ten kindergarten classes; half a dozen years ago, there were perhaps four. P.S. 234 principal Lisa Ripperger has called it "an astronomical number. They couldn't all possibly go."

So the city wants some students to attend P.S. 89, "a very good" school, as Department of Education official Rose puts it. (The city is also constructing two new elementary schools nearby, one close to Battery Park and the other closer to the Seaport.) P.S. 89 resides literally one block from P.S. 234 — in at least one plan it is within the same zone. But what a long block it can seem! "P.S. 89 is not part of our neighborhood," said Mazur. "Why are we being excluded from the neighborhood which we call our own?" He complained that the city wants his child to to cross "a dangerous eight-lane, high-speed highway," as another resident put it. (They did the math; that means 400 crossings per child per year.) At the meeting, another infuriated parent shouted: "Why should my kids cross the highway?"

By the latest city plan, kids from 89 Murray will have to cross the highway, as will kids from 101 Warren, even though it has views into the classrooms of P.S. 234. There is a pedestrian bridge at Chambers Street, but kids from 200 Chambers, which is at the foot of that bridge, won't have to use it since they will still attend 234. None of this is set in stone. A final decision is weeks away, and the only certain outcome is that some parents will be unhappy.