City officials have raised fire safety concerns about a seven-storey Colt Street office building that’s being converted into a school to house approximately 400 high school students from HARP and YES academies next school year.
Planning board members narrowly approved the building in a 4-3 vote last Wednesday after expressing their reservation for the emergency evacuation plan that will utilize fire escapes through a nearby building.
“I could not in good conscience say yes to this project,” said Nelly Celi, who sits on the city’s planning board. She was not alone planning board member Stacey Coleman and chairman Robert Cornish also voted against.
“I just don’t think it’s safe,” she said in an interview in front of the building on Monday afternoon.
Cornish also objected to approving the building. He did not respond to a message seeking his comments for this story.
District’s facilities director Steve Morlino re-assured planning board members at the Wednesday meeting. “The building is equipped with 2 exits at the lobby level and a central stairwell in addition to exit doors to the fire escape at all levels,” said Morlino in a statement on Friday.
The director said the building is equipped with fully automatic supervised fire sprinkler system as well as an ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) complaint addressable fire alarm system.
Celi wondered how students with disabilities would get out of the building in the event of a fire.
“Depending on the situation there are various methods to assist disabled persons including stair chairs,” said Morlino. “There are two elevators available at all levels as well as holding areas which provide a safe haven while awaiting fire department personnel. The building has been retrofitted with fire sprinklers throughout.”
What happens when the fire escape freezes during the winter? Asked Celi. ”The fire escape walk platforms are constructed of expanded metal supported by steel beams,” said Morlino. “The open grate limits the buildup of snow and meets local fire code requirements.”
Errol Kerr, school board member, said the board of education has expressed concerns about the building as well, but he noted the Colt Street building next to the historic City Hall is far better than what students at the old Paterson Mall had to deal with.
“The mall was seriously not good,” said Kerr. “This is a better deal than the mall.”
Kerr said he is concerned about the egresses as well as the traffic congestion that will likely result in the area which is also home to Silk City Academy and a branch of the Community Charter School of Paterson.
School board president Jonathan Hodges who toured the building said, “Our hands are tied in getting decent facilities by the School Development Authority (SDA). We’re forced into pursuing substandard facilities as a result.”
Hodges defined any facility not specifically designed for a school as substandard. He said the state presently bars the district from entering into lease-to-own agreements which would allow the schools to obtain better facilities that after some years would be owned by the district.
Lease-to-own agreements would save New Jersey taxpayers money, said Hodges, for after some years the district would not be putting money towards a lease agreement. The district will spend almost $500,000 per year on rent at the 50,000 square feet facility at the corner of Ellison and Colt Streets.
The facility which still being renovated has 30 classrooms, an auditorium, and administrative offices, according to city records. Parking for staff members will be at Paterson Parking Authority lot at Van Houten and Church Streets.
Owned by Jersey City-based 5 Colt Street LLC, the building is currently undergoing the process needed to obtain a certificate of occupancy (CO).
“We leave it up to the professionals [building and fire departments] to make sure everything is up to the code before they are given a CO,” said Al Abdel-Aziz, a planning board member, who voted to approve the project. He pointed out the planning board merely served as an advisory board as it approved the project.
Lisa Pollak, the schools attorney, in a memo to municipal officials cited a New Jersey statute that states the planning board is allowed to an advisory review. “The board can conduct advisory reviews of ‘programs or plans required by State or federal law or regulation,’” she wrote in her memo. “However, the authority for approving proposed school sites is vested with the State Board of Education and delegated to the Office of School Facilities within the Department of Education.”
In the event the building requires more time before it is prepared for students, the district has extended its lease agreement with the mall for another month, said district spokesperson Terry Corallo.
Corallo said the school will have 70 YES Academy students and 275 HARP Academy students. She said as of now the building is on track to welcome students on the first day of school, September 3rd, 2015.
“We won’t go anywhere near it unless there’s a fire department approval,” said Hodges.