By Greg B. Smith
Mayor de Blasio is moving to gut a bill that would quiet down construction noise next to schools — a bill drafted in response to a building project supported by one of his big donors.
The bill is being pushed by parents at Public School 163 on the Upper West Side who are fighting a 20-story nursing home set to be built right next to their kids’ school.
The huge nursing home is backed by SEIU Local 1199, the health care workers union that has long supported de Blasio and wrote two $250,000 checks to his now defunct nonprofit Campaign for One New York.
Half of that money arrived shortly before de Blasio began siding with the nursing home builder against the interests of the parents, records show.
Those donations were part of a year-long investigation by the Manhattan U.S. attorney that was closed last month. Prosecutors decided not to bring charges, but made a point of saying they were able to establish that de Blasio had solicited funds from entities doing business with City Hall and in some cases intervened on their behalf.
For the last three years, Local 1199 has been pushing for approval of the nursing home tower in an empty parking lot off W. 97th St. located just 30 feet from PS 163.
The developer is represented by the lobbyist law firm of Kramer Levin — the same firm that represented de Blasio personally during the investigations of the mayor’s fund-raising tactics.
The parents sued the city, contending that not enough had been done to protect the children and teachers from expected disruption caused by the project. De Blasio’s Law Department filed a “friend of the court” brief siding with the developers.
The parents won the first round in court in December 2015, but since then an appellate court sided with the city. The parents have moved to appeal to the state’s highest court.
Meanwhile, the parents also met in early 2014 with City Councilman Mark Levine (D-Manhattan) to get him to sponsor a bill restricting noise at construction sites within 50 feet of schools and hospitals to no more than 45 decibels.
The PS 163 parents “realized there is a citywide problem,” said parent Rene Kathawala, a lawyer and parent of two children at the school who led the lawsuit.
Parents learned of other schools with similar construction-related chaos: PS 51 in Hell’s Kitchen, for instance, had to relocate in 2011 after construction next door made it impossible for students to hear teachers.
“Anybody with any common sense understands that young children — in particular those kids with special needs — are very vulnerable, and they can’t learn when there’s massive noise all around them,” Kathawala said.
Levine filed the bill in 2014, and the Council’s Environmental Protection Committee held a July 2015 hearing. Doctors from the Children’s Environmental Health Center at Mount Sinai Hospital testified in favor of Levine’s bill, citing multiple studies that show that high levels of noise seriously undermine a child’s ability to learn.
That included a World Health Organization recommendation that noise levels should not exceed 35 decibels on average “so students are able to hear and understand spoken messages in classrooms.”
But at the hearing, the bill was strenuously opposed by the de Blasio administration, the Real Estate Board of New York and the Building and Construction Trades Council. All contended it would add unnecessary costs to development and delay projects.
Instead City Hall would allow contractors to hit 85 decibels next to schools and hospitals, and give them the option to apply for waivers to take noise levels even higher. Their proposal would also create a “committee” to study the issue that includes developers and contractors — but no one from the community.
“When we got it, I read it. I was like I can’t believe it,” Kathawala said. “It’s clear the corporate interests have again prevailed. You can’t read that bill and not conclude it doesn’t help schools in any respect.”
PS 163 PTA Co-President Nicki Reidy, whose 6- and 8-year-old daughters attend the school, said the mayor is “siding with the corporate giants rather than the public schools, and it’s really disappointing.”
Mayoral spokesman Seth Stein said it was “absurd” to suggest Levine’s bill was only in response to problems at PS 163 — adding that City Hall’s issues with the measure are practical ones.
“We agreed with the aims of this bill, and are open to continuing the discussion. But in its current form, it would have been practically impossible to enforce — a passing ambulance, subway or bus could easily push noise above 45 decibels, regardless of construction nearby,” he said.
Levine says he will continue to push for the 45-decibel rule.
“We really want to establish rules to ensure that all kids are protected when construction is being done right outside their window,” he said.