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City nixes school proposal for Queens Boulevard site

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The city flinched first in its three-year showdown with the owners of Stevens Appliances over the fate of their shuttered Queens Boulevard storefront, which the Department of Education has now dropped from consideration as the site for a new school.

The decision was quietly announced last Thursday in a press release from Borough President Helen Marshall, putting an understated punctuation mark on the end of an often heated battle that pitted the need for new schools against nagging questions about what constitutes an appropriate location.

“It is in the best interest of the entire Queens community to formally drop our interest in the site,” Marshall said in the release.

Marshall’s announcement lifted the so-called cloud of condemnation that had been hanging over the property at Queens Boulevard and 50th Street for nearly three years, ever since the School Construction Authority began scoping it out in late 1999. Both an elementary school and a high school had been proposed for the Woodside site, but the city had remained silent about its plans for more than a year.

The prospect of building a school there drew harsh criticism from community leaders who said traffic along Queens Boulevard — which is notorious for an unusually high rate of pedestrian deaths — made the location too dangerous.

Marshall said a lengthy evaluation done in response to community complaints about the roadway’s dangers convinced her the site was not suitable for a school.

But the sudden SCA turnaround also points to the effects of the new political leadership that emerged from the city’s new term limits law, as well as reform in school governance that replaced the Board of Education with the Department of Education.

“What you have is an entirely new city government,” said City Councilman Eric Gioia (D-Woodside), who lobbied along with Marshall for the site to be withdrawn as a possible school location. “So I think that with new people comes a new vision and a new perspective.”

Perhaps the most notable shift came from Borough Hall. Former Borough President Claire Shulman, who left office in January, had supported use of the Stevens site for a school in light of the borough’s desperate need for more classroom space.

For 50 years the land was home to the family-owned Stevens Appliances, which had closed in November 1999 to be converted into a PC Richard & Son store.

Although a long-term lease had already been signed, the threat of the property’s condemnation put the deal on hold until Marshall’s announcement last week.

“Finally, somebody used common sense,” said Howard Taub, the managing partner of Sipos Realty, the family company that operated Stevens Appliances and still owns the property. “They used common sense and they saw there are other places to put schools.”

Taub said the news gave PC Richard the assurances it needed to move ahead with a $1 million renovation to the building, which he expects will reopen under the appliance chain’s banner early next year.

Taub even filed a lawsuit in state Supreme Court in May 2001 to force the city to give up its claim on the land, but the court quietly ruled in the city’s favor earlier this year.

The last proposal floated by what was then the city Board of Education — now the Department of Education — called for the property to be used for the construction of an 800-seat information technology high school. But a public hearing on the proposal scheduled for April 2001 was postponed indefinitely.

An earlier plan to build an elementary school was tabled after Community Board 2 voted overwhelmingly against it in June 2000.

“We’re glad that the SCA and the Department of Education is not going to move forward on it,” said CB 2 Chairman Joseph Conley. “It just did not make sense for a school. Bad location.”

Still, some parents lamented the decision to give up the site as a misstep at a time when schools are overcrowded and new facilities are desperately needed.

“Our feeling is there is no perfect site. We really need to make due with whatever sites we can find,” said Gloria Morgenstern, the co-president of a parent group for School District 24, which includes Woodside. “It’s a terrible location, I agree with that ... But do we have an empty lot that we can put a school on that’s near anything? No.”

“I can’t argue that it was an ideal site for a school,” said Marge Kolb Corridan, a Woodside resident who is PTA president at IS 73 in Maspeth. “But where do we have ideal sites in this part of western Queens which is so heavily built up? Any time a potential site is lost, I think it’s a shame.”

Reach reporter Dustin Brown by e-mail at Timesledger@aol.com or call 229-0300, Ext. 154.

Updated 7:25 pm, October 10, 2011
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