Even in flush times, the New York City public school system has capital needs that far outstrip its budgets, and so for several years now, the School Construction Authority has been looking at its biggest asset: the 1.5 acres of land under the schools themselves. At 250 East 57th Street, on a site that used to hold P.S. 59 and the venerable High School of Art and Design, work has begun on the first phase of a one-million-square-foot complex that will house the rebuilt schools, as well as housing and retail. Roger Duffy, the lead architect at Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, explained the logic of the idea: “A lot of school sites in New York remain underdeveloped in terms of FAR (floor-area ratio).”
In exchange for the right to create a lucrative mixed-use development on the block-through parcel, developer World Wide Holdings negotiated a deal with the State Board of Education to rebuild and enlarge both schools on the site. In addition to lease payments, a PILOT (Payment In Lieu Of Tax) scheme will contribute additional funds to other education programs across the city.
Construction will occur in two phases, with the retail levels and a significantly enlarged P.S. 59 emerging first. A 59-story residential tower and new High School of Art and Design will follow in an estimated four years.
One of the more appealing features of the design is the large Astroturf play area on top of the building’s retail plinth. There are six outdoor terraces, each catering to a different age group—which are unusually generous outdoor provisions for a public school in Manhattan. The second phase will see the rise of a concertina-like 59-story glazed tower, housing 320 apartments and condos; 20 percent of the units will be affordable, with another 30 affordable units built off-site.
This type of partnership has been growing more common in recent years and is not without its critics, but in a time of chronic budget shortfalls, Duffy sees it as an avenue worth exploring. “The involvement of private developers needs to be composed in an intelligent way to create leverage [for the school system],” he said. “But there is also a need to bring the public and private sectors together.”