Vision' for Caldor?
By MATTHEW COREY
Long the home of Alexander's department store and then, for a brief period, Caldor, the commercial property at the corner of Fordham Road and the Grand Concourse now symbolizes the competition between two serious needs on Fordham Road: school space and economic development.
Caldor closed its doors for the last time in May 1997. It is now available for rent from Vornado Realty, a Saddle Brook, New Jersey real estate investment trust best known for buying up property on Eighth Avenue around Madison Square Garden.
In May, Patricia Zedalis, the central Board of Education's head of school facilities, publicly announced interest in the Caldor site as the possible home of two New Visions schools. Board of Ed spokesman J.D. LaRock described the negotiations as "active and going on" as of early July, but Vornado would not comment for this article.
New Visions refers to New Visions for Public Schools, a Manhattan nonprofit that connects both private funding and private interest in education with the New York City public schools. It has created a number of small, theme-based schools designed by community-based organizations.
"In both 1993 and in 1995 we sent out RFPs [Requests For Proposals] to thousands of organizations and individuals who have an interest in the New York City public school system," said James Vlasto, New Visions' director of communications, "including community groups, universities, and unions -- basically, a cross-section of the city."
Interested parties filled out applications, submitted to interviews, and the most promising received "planning money" and "implementation money" to begin designing and putting together a school, according to Vlasto.
Two groups close to opening their own schools or programs within schools in District 10 have been mentioned in connection with Caldor.
One, the Dra. [Doctora] Antonia Pantoja School for Public Policy, is the brainchild of ASPIRA. A nonprofit group with affiliates throughout the northeast and Puerto Rico, ASPIRA is known for its youth programs, including a leadership club and dropout prevention program at Norwood's DeWitt Clinton High School and a Beacon School at PS 86. Named for the teacher who founded ASPIRA in 1961, the Pantoja School aims to enroll 400 children in grades 6-12.
ASPIRA submitted documents in its New Visions application which described the mission of the group and its plans for a school. As its own "New Vision," ASPIRA promises to graduate students who are computer literate, multicultural, and commit themselves to "personal integrity and community leadership." Although ASPIRA wants to graduate students who are fluent in Spanish and English, the school is not solely for Latino teens.
Oasis, the other New Visions school under consideration for the Caldor space, is a project of the United Way of New York. It will school small children from pre-kindergarten through third grade, Vlasto said. The school will seek to ease the transition between private daycare and other preschool options to the New York City public schools. According to Vlasto, Oasis, like the ASPIRA school, will have a "dual-language component" to address District 10 children's literacy needs.
Vlasto said he had no knowledge of the Caldor negotiations but that he felt confident the Board of Ed would find space in time for the planned September 1999 opening of Oasis and Pantoja.
"All of these schools open with small numbers of students," Vlasto pointed out. "They'll possibly open up within an existing school, or leased space will be found for them."
Putting schools in Caldor is not universally popular. The new institutions would sit at the heart of Fordham Road's famous shopping district, a traffic-choked strip through which children as young as 4 would travel to school.
"In my opinion, it's not the best use for what has been designed as retail commercial space," said José Vélez, executive director of the Bronx Council on Economic Development and a strong advocate for the new Fordham Road Business Improvement District (BID) expected to start this fall. For Vélez, converting Caldor to what he calls "institutional use" would be a net loss for the lively commercial zone.
"You're reducing the footage of retail commercial space, and therefore you're going to have less commercial activity," Vélez said. "We can't afford to have that."
"Ideally," Vélez said, he would like "an Old Navy or a Gap or some kind of national or retail chain store open up there." Old Navy, a division of the Gap, has expressed interest in the site, Vélez said. The Old Navy executive responsible for real estate acquisitions in New York City, Ray Brunt, was on vacation and could not be reached by Norwood News' deadline.
Luis Genal, the executive in charge of ASPIRA's New Visions bid, took pains to emphasize the store is only one of several sites being considered for the Pantoja school.
Assemblyman Roberto Ramírez, himself closely associated with the Fordham Road BID, State Senator Efrain Gonzalez, and City Councilman José Rivera, all of whose districts include the old Caldor site, would not respond to several requests for comment on the choice between a school or a store for Caldor.
Caught between parents and children starved for school space and ambitious Fordham Road business leaders Fordham Road politicos appear to be doing their best to steer clear of the controversy.
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