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CB 11 opposes Bayside school site

By Phil Corso

A city proposal to build an elementary school in the heart of Bayside has Community Board 11 members on the edge of their seats with concerns over congestion and traffic trouble.

Christopher Persheff, a site selection manager for the city School Construction Authority, visited the board’s May meeting Monday night to solicit community input for the potential 416-seat primary school to which residents responded with a resounding “no.”

After a lengthy and heavily attended public hearing at MS 158 in Bayside, CB 11 voted 25-3 with nine abstentions against the proposed school being eyed for the site now occupied by Keil Bros. Garden Center at 210-11 48th Ave. The City Council will make the final call on the proposal.

The meeting became so contentious at times that Schools Chancellor Dennis Walcott wrote a letter to CB 11 Chairman Jerry Iannece and other board members, reprimanding them for letting the discussion turn into a free-for-all. The chancellor said the proposed school was desperately needed to alleviate overcrowding in Bayside.

“Unfortunately, that’s not a view shared by the aggressive and antagonistic individuals you allowed to threaten representatives of the SCA who were making a good faith effort at early engagement with the community on a crucial new school facility,” Walcott said. “One individual even threatened to break a SCA representative’s legs.”

At Monday’s meeting, Persheff said the School Construction Authority started the process of purchasing the property owned by Keil Bros., which has been in business for 85 years, April 15, but had been looking for a spot to construct a school in Bayside to alleviate overcrowding since 2008.

“There has been a need in this district for several years,” Persheff said. “It’s not an easy thing to find 3,000 square feet to build a school. It just doesn’t happen. It’s very rare.”

Joan Casale, principal of PS 162 in Bayside, was one of two school officials to speak in favor of the proposal Monday, citing massive enrollment at her 201-02 53rd Ave. elementary school. She said the number of enrolled students has grown from 681 at the beginning of 2011 to more than 715 currently.

PS 41 Principal Sari Latto also said overcrowding was leaving her with fewer options and a new school in Bayside would work to the benefit of District 26 students, whose class sizes have only grown in recent years.

“Most of my classes are now over-capped,” Latto said. “We are hoping that the opportunity for a new school to be built will alleviate some of that.”

Persheff and colleague Monica Gutierrez fielded questions at the board meeting related mostly to the potential environmental impact on homeowners surrounding the property and how bus traffic might make the two-lane 48th Avenue more dangerous.

With each question, Persheff reaffirmed that an environmental consultant would be canvassing the neighborhood to consider the effects a new school might have on nearby homes, traffic flow and parking.

Nonetheless, most residents at the meeting were united in their opposition to bringing another school into the same neighborhood as MS 158, on nearby Oceania Street, and PS 31, off Bell Boulevard on 46th Road.

“This area is saturated with schools,” said Bayside activist Mandingo Tshaka. “We can’t stand anymore. It’s just no good.”

Ronald Keil, of Keil Bros., said a declining economy led the center to accept the city’s offer for purchase, but business will remain as scheduled for the 2013 season. He also said the center would probably stay in the Bayside area.

“The changing nature of the retail business and increasing cost of doing business helped us consider the city’s offer,” Keil said. “Nothing is definite yet until the decision is made. We’re still exploring options to continue business in the future at a nearby location in Queens.”

In a question-and-answer session, Persheff silenced a recurring rumor that the new building would stand as high as five stories. He said there were yet to be designs brought to the table as the SCA was still in its early stages, simply soliciting input before going to the drawing board.

He did mention, however, that there was enough room beneath Keil Bros. to install a cellar, which could act as the potential school’s primary storage space and eliminate the necessity for more stories.

Reach reporter Phil Corso by e-mail at pcorso@cnglocal.com or by phone at 718-260-4573.

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