Manhattan Country Day School’s plan to expand and move into a building on the Upper West Side ran up against Community Board 7’s land use committee, which wants the project’s architect to reduce the visual impact of a proposed vertical extension on the former home of the Mannes School of Music on West 85th Street.
About 200 students attend the school, which is now on East 96th Street near Central Park. The impetus behind the crosstown move is school leadership’s wish to double the student body and, in turn, increase teacher salaries, which are among the lowest for private schools in New York.
The school wants to build out portions of two existing floors as well as construct a rooftop play area and add an elevator bulkhead to the roof. To do that school officials need a variance from the city’s Board of Standards and
Appeals because the building already exceeds zoning restrictions.
The proposal calls for carving out the middle of the building – to provide light and air into the lower classrooms - and adding an equivalent area, about 5,000 square feet, to the roof. The building was originally 26,300 square feet but has since grown to 30,000 square feet. If built, the school’s proposal would exceed zoning limits by more than 8,000 square feet.
Page Cowley, chair of CB7’s land use committee, said the board is supportive of the school but is grappling with the idea of filling out the two top floors, which will increase the building’s height profile from the front by about 12 feet.
“The neighbors feel that that additional height is injurious to their light and air, and they’re right,” said Cowley. “[Manhattan Country Day School] needs to respect the context of that streetscape and not infringe on their neighbors.”
Nevertheless, Cowley praised the project’s architect, Andrew Bartle, and said she is confident he’ll come up with a solution that satisfies all parties. “Hopefully he’ll be able to do some fine tuning,” said Cowley, who works as a preservation architect.
The plan must be approved by the city’s Board of Standards and Appeals before the expansion can begin. Before the BSA rules on the application, however, the community board needs to review the plan and issue a recommendation.
The board’s land use committee drafted a conditional approval of the project, providing that Manhattan Country Day School, in their revised request for a variance to the BSA, reduce the building’s proposed height profile from the front and provide the same information on the variance revision to the community board before their next full board meeting. CB7’s full board will be voting on the resolution April 7.
The community board’s concerns dovetail with those raised by local residents, most notably through a joint effort by the 85-86 Neighbor Alliance and the West 85th Street Association. The overarching complaint with the proposal is that the building is already overbuilt and adding to its height would be inappropriate for the district.
The pre-kindergarten through eighth-grade school is known for being unconventional. Tuition is based on a limited percentage of a student’s family income. Lunch is taken in the classroom as opposed to in a cafeteria as a way to foster community. Older students navigate floors via a fire escape. And the school partners with a 180-acre farm in the Catskills to teach students agriculture skills.
The move and expansion also has a critic in an important alumnus of the school. Mary Trowbridge, whose parents founded Manhattan Country Day School in the 1960s, told the Wall Street Journal she fears the plan will threaten the school’s hallmark sense of intimacy.
“There are a lot of risks involved with the move,” Trowbridge told the paper.
Those concerns didn’t stop about 20 supporters of the school’s move from showing up at CB7’s land use meeting, roughly equal to those who came to oppose the plan.
Michele Sola, the school’s director, refuted the idea that Manhattan Country would lose its hallmark sense of intimacy. She said the expansion is a way to serve more students and is in keeping with the school’s mission of inclusion.
According to the Journal, the school received 164 applications for 24 pre-k spots last year.