An architects rendering of the South Bronx Charter School for International Cultures and the Arts building, set to open next fall.
An architects rendering of the South Bronx Charter School for International Cultures and the Arts building, set to open next fall.

Traffic on busy streets worries some parents

Preparations are almost complete for construction of a new charter school on a lot at Bruckner Boulevard and East 133rd Street in Port Morris that once housed gas stations and the Golden Lady strip club.

Surrounded by a maze of busy roadways that feed onto the nearby Major Deegan and Bruckner Expressways, the site looks like an unlikely spot for an elementary school.

But a school official said that sometimes appearances are deceiving.

“It will be a great place,” said Robert McLaughlin, the board attorney for the South Bronx Charter School for International Cultures and the Arts.  “Our students will have access to the most modern learning center in the South Bronx.”

The K-5 school purchased the property in 2007 to unite its two campuses, several blocks apart on East139th Street. Funding to develop the property was awarded last year through tax-exempt bonds provided by Build NYC, an arm of the city’s Economic Development Corporation.

The school is scheduled to open by the beginning of the 2014 school year.

But although the funding is in place, the school has had some hurdles to cross before construction can begin.

A remedial study showed soil contaminated from a history of industrial use.

The island between the two expressways is filled with the sounds and smells of the hundreds of cars and trucks that rumble by on every side.

Some parents are not convinced that the location is appropriate.

Elisa Guerrero, whose 10-year old son has attended the school for three years, said she liked the education but was glad he would move on to middle school next year. The new location has too much traffic, she said

“I don’t like the area,” Guerrero said.  “It’s dangerous.”

Another mother, Jessica Castro, also thought planners had chosen the wrong site.

“They didn’t give us a choice,” Castro said. “Honestly, I think it’s going to be a mess.”

Stephen Grasso, the school’s architect, said that the location actually works in the school’s favor because Cypress Avenue, which faces the rear of the property, has no through traffic.

“It’s kind of like an island in the middle of the South Bronx,” said Grasso, of the Stamford, Connecticut based Partners for Architecture. “It’s an ideal site for a school.”

McLaughlin acknowledged that the location is not easy to reach on foot.  Additional traffic studies and a proposed traffic light will be necessary to make the site more pedestrian-friendly, he said.

Access is limited from the residential neighborhoods on the other side of the Major Deegan, where crossings are scarce and spread out.  The site is also located on an island where the busy Bruckner Boulevard splits in two. It is currently impossible to cross to the site without darting through unregulated traffic.

“It’s very difficult,” McLaughlin said. “That’s why the light is imperative.”

City Department of Transportation spokesman Scott Gastel said that the DOT met with school officials and is looking into possible solutions in time for the 2014 school year.  He added that no determination had been made yet on how to improve the crossings at the site.

Environmental cleanup revealed an empty oil tank that has been removed, McLaughlin said. He said there was no trace of tanks or of leaks from the site’s long-time use as a gas station.

Barry Hersh, a New York University professor who specializes in environmental contamination, said so-called “brownfield” sites are scattered all over the city – especially in industrial neighborhoods like Port Morris. He said there’s no reason they can’t be redeveloped if they’re cleaned up properly.

“How do you find a site that isn’t like that in the South Bronx?” Hersh asked. “There is no pristine site in New York City.”

The city approved a plan calling for a powerful air filtration system and sound-proof windows and materials to protect students and faculty from the traffic noise and air pollution, Grasso said.

McLaughlin said parents had been consulted on the new school during planning meetings and the consensus was that one school was better than two.

One parent, Rosa Huerta, who supported combining the schools, had explored the location to get a sense of what it would be like.

“I’ve walked through the neighborhood and it’s not that bad,” Huerta said.  “As long as there are crossing guards and security I don’t mind it.”

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