Proposed Sunnyside Gardens middle school sparks controversy

Proposed Sunnyside Gardens middle school sparks controversy
Photo by Bill Parry
By Patrick Donachie

Weeks after the School Construction Authority announced it had selected a site for a new middle school in the Sunnyside Gardens area, community members and some elected officials are expressing caution about proceeding.

The potential site at the intersection of 48th Street and Barnett Avenue is currently occupied by a vacant warehouse which was the former site of the Clarence Stein Sunnyside Community Garage and was designed by the famed architect. It is located outside of the Sunnyside Gardens Historic District but is listed on the state and National Register of Historic Places, according to a web post by the Sunnyside Gardens Preservation Alliance.

“This building on 48th Street across from Sunnyside Park is the one in greatest need for preservation within the Sunnyside Gardens planned community,” the posting read.

The SCA had been seeking a location for a new middle school in the area to alleviate overcrowding. The SCA’s capital plan identified a need for seats in the Sunnyside/Woodside sub-district of District 30, and the school would include about 600 already funded seats. A time line on design and construction has not been finalized, and the SCA has not commented on whether the building currently occupying the space would need to be demolished or could be incorporated into the new school.

State Sen. Michael Gianaris (D-Astoria) sent a letter to SCA President Lorraine Grillo relaying anxious comments he said he heard from some constituents on whether or not the current building would be removed.

“These residents expressed a desire to see some aspect of the historic structure remain a part of the new building,” the letter read.

Sean McGowan, a parent in the neighborhood and an advocate for a new middle school in the area, said he had heard a variety of arguments against the location, including a need for preservation, more children using the intersection, increased traffic and a decrease in property values. He said traffic was a concern, but he did not understand anxiety about surrounding neighborhood property values.

“I understand it’s change. I understand it’s different,” he said. “But I just can’t wrap my mind around the idea that replacing an empty building with a modern school would lower property values.”

McGowan suggested that the city could rent parking spots in a nearby department store parking lot that he said was often empty during business hours for school staff. He pointed out that the new school would likely not lead to a huge increase in car traffic at arrival and dismissal times because most children would likely be coming from the immediate area.

The post from the Preservation Alliance left the door open for supporting the school.

“A new school could remedy the neglect this award-winning building has suffered in recent decades, and a restoration of the principal facades would be a practical solution that brings pride to us all,” the post read. “If this is to be the site for the school, we agree with the leading proponents for the school: Clarence Stein’s building must be restored, not destroyed.”

Reach reporter Patrick Donachie by e-mail at pdonachie@cnglocal.com or by phone at (718) 260–4573.