They were dropped off on a quiet block in Jericho, the home of Michael Wilner, who owns the factory site at 78-16 Cooper Avenue in Glendale.
The property has long been rumored to be a potential future homeless shelter. Residents and local elected officials, however, are pushing for the site to be converted into a District 75 school for students with disabilities.
According to local activists, the main obstacle is Wilner. That’s why last Saturday, the coalition went to Wilner’s home for a peaceful demonstration.
“Michael Wilner, shame on you,” the protesters chanted, “let us build a school.”
Wilner hired a private security guard, who was already parked in the driveway when the protesters arrived.
Several neighbors watched the rally from the doorstep of their homes. One neighbor, seemingly irritated by the noise, approached protesters and told them to “shut the hell up.”
But that did not deter protesters, who made their message clear.
“Mr. Wilner, we will not let you deprive the children of our community their school,” said Mike Papa, a Glendale resident and one of the organizers of the rally. “We will not let you destroy the very fabric of our hardworking, traditionally valued, family-oriented neighborhood.”
Papa made the case for the site to become a District 75 school, which educates “severely handicapped children” from the community.
PS 9, a District 75 school located in an industrial part of Maspeth, is operating at 128 percent capacity, Papa said. It’s so overcrowded that it has to operate out of seven different locations.
That means students with severe physical and mental disabilities often have to spend as much as four hours per day on a school bus, Papa said.
“Keep in mind, they suffer from deep fears and phobias,” he said. “They are autistic children, children with Down syndrome and other afflictions,” he said. “Still, they get up everyday and come to school and want to learn.”
Robert Wojnarowski, the principal of the school, travels daily to the seven different locations. He oversees 70 classrooms in total, according to Papa.
The solution, coalition members believe, is to build a new, state-of-the-art and accessible school at 78-16 Cooper Avenue. That will allow the seven sites to consolidate to one location.
“We have the means and a plan within our own community to help our own,” Papa said. “We couldn’t be prouder to host that in our own neighborhood.
“Our entire community is convinced there could not be a more perfect location to build this desperately-needed new location,” he added. “There’s one obstacle standing in the way of this project from becoming a reality, and that’s the man living in this house.”
Despite previous offers to sell the property for a large profit, Wilner has been looking to convert the former factory into a homeless shelter site, Papa said.
For Middle Village resident Mickey Eberlein, putting a homeless shelter at that location would be a bad idea because there are five schools within an eight-block radius. There is also a sports center for kids, girls gymnastics school, dance schools and a new daycare coming soon.
“I have nothing against homeless shelters, I feel sorry for the men and women,” she said. “But find someplace else, not where there are schools.”
Carol Deneen from Middle Village said the shelter would take away the site from the children, who need a new space.
“It’s a perfect location,” she said. “They need a place to go.”
At last week’s Community Board 5 meeting, Councilman Robert Holden said while the District 75 school is not off the table, they still need to convince both the mayor and Wilner to sign off on it.
“Everything is on hold right now,” Holden said. “We just need to convince the owner a little bit. I think we’re going to do that.”