The Town School and Lycèe Francais de New York private bilingual school both submitted a proposal to Community Board 8 to create a play street along East 76th Street between York Avenue and FDR Drive because the schools are repurposing their gymnasiums into classrooms, but there was vociferous opposition to the plan and the board ultimately voted against the proposal at last night’s full-board meeting.
A large city park, John Jay Park, sits just opposite the proposed play street, but officials from the two private schools say that the park is already crowded with students and children from nearby public schools, and they need the play street so that their students are still able to exercise in a safe manner while the pandemic is still in effect.
But many residents from the John Jay House and the Promenade Condominium on East 76th Street expressed and voiced strong opposition to the proposal because they claim that the play street will hinder and impede emergency vehicles’ response time.
But Steven Petrillo, the director of security, transportation and community relations for the Town School, tried to assuage the residents that the schools had altered their plan based on the input residents had provided to the Transportation Committee on July 1.
“We have new changes since the transportation meeting. We heard the residents loud and clear. Therefore, on the corner of York Avenue there’ll be signage that the street is closed only halfway down the street after 525 East 76th Street,” said Petrillo.
He added, “Any vehicle, taxi and emergency vehicle can easily come down the street to pick up and drop off any resident.”
Similarly, Terrence Kennedy, director of facilities, engineering and security at Lycèe Francais, said that there would be no hindrance to any type of vehicle that needs access. He also hoped that the board would approve the measure because both schools are committed to the community.
“We are a not-for-profit, but we give a lot of money, $5.4 million in scholarships and financial aid to students. We’re an important member of the community, our school is very community oriented,” said Kennedy.
But then the public had their chance to weigh in on why they are opposed.
Arthur Mirante, president of the board of the Promenade Condominium at 530 East 76th Street, said that the play street will prove to be a safety hazard for the students because construction workers will soon start work on the Promenade for the next 18 to 24 months.
“In two weeks, a major construction project will kick off and it’s going to entail scaffolding around our entire building, including a portion of the FDR Drive. Having a play street contiguous to a construction site just makes no sense at all to me, it’s bad behavior and insensitive,” said Mirante.
Amy Gumbinner lives at 520 East 76th Street and she implored the board to vote no against the play street, especially because her husband needs to regularly visit the hospital. He was struck by a taxi five years ago that left him paralyzed from the waist down.
“My husband has been rushed to the hospital many times. You all know that seconds and minutes can be the difference between life and death, or getting relief from unbearable agony,” Gumbinner said.
And Brian Keenan, who lives at 525 East 76th Street, believes that the play street proposal should be brought to the U.S. Justice Department on the basis of the Americans with Disabilities Act under Title 3.
“This is clearly a discrimination against those who can’t get to their primary residence and for that I recommend that this proposition be thoroughly and distinctly rejected.”
The board ultimately voted against the proposal by a margin of 31-12, with one abstention and one not voting for cause.
But one board member, Vanessa Aronson, said that she was perplexed by the majority of the board members voting no given that the board has voted previously for initiatives such as the Open Streets program. She noted, at least in the pre-Covid-19 era, that streets are shut down all the time in the city for street fairs, parades and United Nations meetings such as the annual United Nations General Assembly (UNGA).
“UNGA 2020 is a perfect example of when streets are closed for extremely long periods of time, yet residents of the street are able to get in and out with, frankly, an easier time than when there are normal traffic conditions,” said Aronson.
She acknowledged, however, that a lot of the concerns about accessibility for ambulances are issues that are very important to her personally.
“My understanding is that ambulances would be able to get through, and again, when there isn’t regular traffic and there's the presence of a public safety officer, this should be an easier, faster way to get an ambulance through to a one-way street,” Aronson noted.