Subsidized Residents Question New Private Learning Center


444 Second Avenue.
The entrance to the affordable housing building next door to the new private early learning center. (Tobias Salinger)

The private Explore + Discover early learning center slated to open in a retail space on the ground floor of the 14-floor, 404-unit Henry Phipps Plaza South affordable housing complex has provoked questions about whether it’s appropriate to place the pricey daycare program in a building whose occupants can’t afford it.

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While residents of the building of 290 Section 8 units and 114 other affordable apartments at 444 Second Avenue in Kips Bay acknowledged that nonprofit landlord Phipps Houses Services could help pay for upkeep of their subsidized housing through the 15-year, $80-per-square foot lease, they expressed frustration that their children wouldn’t have access to the educational programs for pupils aged three months to two years.

“This is not affordable, for sure, for the people who are living here,” said disabled resident Annetra McCants as workers hammered away to complete the eight-classroom facility ahead of its Sept. 8 opening date. “I thought it wasn’t fair that they put this high-price daycare here and it’s not for people who live in our building.”

Explore and Discover
Rendering of the center slated to open Sept. 8. (Explore + Discover)

Tuition at the school where nine out of 13 instructors have master’s degrees in child development will run as high as $2,791 per month for fulltime students, and residents called for some free scholarships for youngsters from the building or some public use of the facility, which will include custom-made child furniture and a playground with a hollowed-out tree tunnel.

“They have a lot of kids in this building and they need help in this area,” said Delores Sparks, a seven-year resident. “These kids ain’t got no place to go.”

Officials with the school pledged to consider both the scholarship and the community-use ideas as they make final plans for the first of what they hope will be many locations of the early childhood program. They already plan to install between four to eight “Little Free Library” book boxes around the neighborhood where residents can loan and borrow books for all ages, and the school should encourage more child-friendly tenants in the area like toy and clothing stores, said Daniel Koffler, the chief strategy officer of the school’s parent company, K3 Learning.

“What we do is social entrepreneurship,” Mr. Koffler said. “We’re trying to do business profitably while doing good for society at large and the community.”

Explore and Discover
Jacqueline Marks, Daniel Koffler, and Renee Bock of Explore + Discover. (Tobias Salinger)

For their part, the nonprofit building owners–whose organization received $12.5 million in government funds in 2012, according to its most recent available filing–referenced existing free social service programming operated onsite by its affiliate, Phipps Neighborhoods, as well as an extensive $25 million renovation of the building through a 2006 private bank loan that preserved the building’s affordability and a more recent $4 million facelift for new lobbies, security upgrades and the additional retail space where the daycare will soon open. The learning center will operate as a private tenant, said Miriam Rubinton, vice president of Phipps Houses Services.

“We felt this tenant was a good fit for the space because of their low impact use which would not create heavy traffic and disturbance to the residents,” Ms. Rubinton wrote in an email. “But it is a commercial tenant. Had we rented the space to another commercial user, it would have been unusual to ask them to discount their products or services for the building’s residents. We believe that the affordable rent [of the building] is an effective way of ensuring that the highest cost a household has to bear is under control. Phipps Neighborhoods operates universal pre-k programs in the Bronx, and will identify available opportunities nearby for our residents.”

But local Council Member Rosie Mendez, a Democrat who represents Kips Bay and portions of the surrounding neighborhoods, weighed in with an expression of support for the residents’ concerns.

“The Explore and Discover Learning Center does not appear to be the right fit for its immediate neighbors who are all middle and/or low income,” Ms. Mendez said in a prepared statement. But, she added of the school officials, “I wish them much success and I would be thrilled if some scholarships were set aside for neighborhood residents.”

444 Second Avenue
444 Second Avenue. (Tobias Salinger)