Times article disconnect / why developers should build schools UPDATED

is it about the links?
Yesterday’s NY Times article by Christine Haughney in The Appraisal feature, Parents’ Real Estate Strategy: Schools Come First, got a lot of attention in the blogosphere, and probably in the real world, also (of course, the article got linked on Curbed and many other sites; The Google returned 2,630 results, using the exact title of the article; it also got a discussion thread on StreetEasy).

Did anyone else think that the middle of the article got left out?

The pretty explicit headline was followed by a great lede:

When [the featured family] started shopping for an apartment in Manhattan in 2007, their first call was not to a real estate broker. Instead, they hired an education consultant…

From there, it was a short distance to discussion that the public school this family paid a premium to be zoned for is overcrowded, thence to a

struggle on the Upper West Side between parents like [this family] who want more classrooms — many more — and the developer of a new project who is offering to build a school that some say is not big enough [and]

[while] Extell Development has already offered to build a 75,000-square-foot school for 480 students for children in kindergarten through eighth grade, ***

[but] Parents say that is not big enough. They want Extell to build a school that accommodates six classes per grade or roughly 1,250 students, and they want Extell to pay for more of it.

In support of this viewpoint, the Times offers the:

co-president of the P.S. 87 Parents Association, [who] said that at her school the number of incoming kindergartners more than doubled, to 241 in 2010 from 93 in 2007. She added that these numbers were only going to grow, based on the growing presence of Gymborees and baby stores in the neighborhood.


the missing middle
Here is what I expected to see in the article, but did not:

Since 2005 [or, insert your preferred date], PS 87 enrolled [pick a number] new students from new condominium developments.

Or at least something like:

Along Riverside Boulevard, new developments since 2005 have added xx apartments to the PS 87 zone, about [80%??] of which have 2 or more bedrooms. While it is impossible to say how many of these apartments contain families with small children, [some expert] estimated that yy% is a reasonable guesstimate, of which more than [half?] are likely to send their children to private schools instead of public schools.

The best that Haughney can do is a vague statement by someone who may (or may not) know what he is talking about. Maybe the president of District 3’s Community Education Council has data to support this statement, but he didn’t share:

“This overcrowding has been caused to a fair extent by overbuilding,” [he] said …. “This school [the proposed Riverside Center school] has got to be big,” he said. “It’s got to be paid for by the developer and it’s got to be among the first buildings built.”

who goes to public schools?
Certainly there are some families who pay many millions of dollars to buy apartments who send their children to public schools; I just don’t know how many. But I would be surprised if overcrowding at PS 87 "has been caused to a fair extent by overbuilding”, if by "to a fair extent" the guy means "to a significant extent". You would think there are experts who have a pretty good idea about that, but I am not one of those experts.

I do know that the median price of the 34 apartments 2 bedrooms or larger sold at The Rushmore, 80 Riverside Boulevard (the poster child for Upper West Side over-development, I would say) so far in 2010 is $2.5mm. I could be wrong, but I just don’t see a lot of PS 87 kids coming out of this building.

another (more fair) cause of over-crowding in schools?
I would love to have a data source from which to estimate how many small prewar apartments have been combined into "family-sized" units. That’s what that featured family from the Times article did, in fact. (Not that there’s anything wrong with that.)

They bought what had been originally a studio and a one-bedroom. No children were likely to go to PS 87 from either of those apartments before they were combined, but now they have a 2nd grader. It looks as though there were 109 units in the building when it was converted to a coop in 1965, but Property Shark thinks there are only 65 residential units currently. That is a lot of combinations. I bet there are more than a few PS 87 students from that building’s combined apartments.

There is another example of where (some) school overcrowding can come from. The Times article closes with a (rather entitled) father who thinks he made a "pact" with the City. That guy is doing what many in my parents generation did: cramming a family into a small rental apartment. That guy is living with a 4-year old, a 2-year old (and a wife?) in a rented 900 sq ft apartment across the street from their preferred public school.

He thinks that is a sacrifice, and that the City owes him:

“Has my family sacrificed to stay in this zone? Absolutely,” [the (entitled) dad] said. “When we made the decision to stay in the city, we entered into a pact with the city. That pact was that my child would go to his or her zoned school.”

I don’t think he read the fine print about what it means to be zoned for a particular school.

Both of these families are doing what they think is best for themselves, by buying or renting in a school zone they prefer. One family is not happy with the staggered schedule for their daughter when she was in first grade; the other will not be happy unless both their kids get into PS 199 from a waiting list.

the cause
The same dynamic that caused these families to make these sacrifices has caused developers to increase the number and proportion of "family-sized" apartments in new developments: that fact that the City is seen as a viable alternative to the suburbs because it is thought to be a safe environment and/or because some families have boatloads of money to throw at private schools. I am not going now to track down the many, many articles in the Real Estate Industrial Complex discussing this phenomenon, in part because this post is already too long (and taking too long) and in part because regular Manhattan Loft Guy readers are probably well familiar with the topic.

Whether you think the trend started in 1987, 1995 or 2002, I am confident that demographers could prove to you that more families stayed in the City after that first or second child than in previous generations, which would have fled to the ‘burbs by the second birth (if not before). One result was that families combined two smaller apartments (like the featured family); another result was that families squeezed into rental spaces near ‘good’ public schools rather than having more room near a not-so-good school (like the entitled family); yet another result was that developers added 3-bedroom, 4-bedroom and gazillion-bedroom units to their new development floor plans.

But I am skeptical about how many of those families in ultra-large new development apartments are using public schools. (I am also not going to track to link to the articles about the explosive growth in private school applications and enrollment, but I am highly confident that that "has been caused to a fair extent by overbuilding".)

circling back
I have gone a long way from where I started this post; let’s tie some things up.

The Times article faked me out because I thought they were doing a hot-PS-zone-drives-Manhattan-real-estate-prices article. The quotes from the featured family line up perfectly with such an article (especially about how they "stretched financially" and put “[a]ll of our money … in our little two-bedroom apartment”).

There are at least two great articles to be written that extend these two paragraphs (but Haughney did not do either one):

Families like the [featured family] helped raise the tide of New York real estate prices in recent years by bypassing the suburbs and, instead, paying premium prices for apartments near high-performing public schools in places like TriBeCa and the Upper West Side in Manhattan, and Park Slope in Brooklyn. Developers, in turn, built costly family-size apartments near the same schools, knowing they would draw parents hoping to avoid the cost of a private education.

But there were never any guarantees. Schools fill up. Zones are altered by the Department of Education, which sometimes switches the blocks that each zone comprises. Children in New York City, after all, are guaranteed a public education, but not necessarily in the school that their parents want, or in the one that is closest.

Instead, she doffed her NY Times cap at these topics, without substantiating the assertion that new developments, per se, "cause" overcrowding (as I addressed above). But she also did not consider whether developers were really focused on good public school districts when they decided where to develop (she seems to assume that this is obvious), as opposed to considerations such as (a) ease of lot assembly, (b) a big enough zoning / FAR ‘envelope’, (c) river or other views. I am almost certain that public schools were irrelevant to developer thoughts about the Time Warner Center or 15 Central Park West.

Getting closer to real Manhattan loft concerns, is PS 234 a more decisive consideration for new development decisions in that funny triangle south of Canal Street, or is that Tribeca is Tribeca is Tribeca (with PS 234 as only one element of what makes that triangle Tribeca)? Rhetorical device be damned … the MLG answer is no.

[UPDATE 7.15: I probably bit off here more than I could comfortably chew in one post, but let me at least include what should have been an obvious factual reference in any discussion of Tribeca and public schools: the recent controversy over the boundaries for PS 234 in Tribeca, covered extensively by The Downtown Express (for example, here, with maps). The very newsworthy angle to this story of course involves a major new development, 101 Warren St, which is in the PS 234 zone under either plan then under consideration, while the ‘affordfable housing’ compenent of that same overall project (89 Murray St) would be out of the PS 234 zone under one proposed map.

I continue to think that 101 Warren Street is where it is because it was one of the last substantially empty really large development sites in Tribeca, and not because it is down the block (and zoned for) PS 234. But that point may require more analysis to be persuasive to some readers. Not gonna go there now, as this post has really gone too long, and perhaps too far afield. i still would like to see data in these articles….]

psyching out the Old Grey Lady
Maybe my NY Times expectations are just too high, but I am prone to disappointment when the Lady carries an article with holes. You can do better! I wish they had fleshed out more the central (assumed) point: that the kids from the new developments are the ones causing the (unnatural) crowding in top public schools.

But maybe some of the fuzziness is because Hauhgney had terrific quotes from two very quotable families. The piece starts and ends strong, with these two families as anchors. But there’s much more sizzle than steak (block that metaphor??) between the appetizer and the dessert.

I hate when that happens….

© Sandy Mattingly 2010


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