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S. Boston developer plans a private school

Critics say idea caters to the rich

The 23 acres in South Boston's Seaport District have been barren for decades, home to nothing but parking lots. But in a few years, a 2,500-unit housing complex could spring up, along with a performing arts center, two health clubs, a public garden, and an unusual perk: a private school.

Developer John B. Hynes III said he hopes that the school, which will serve 1,500 children from kindergarten through high school, will help attract families and company executives to the area. Owners and renters of the mix of condos and apartments in the development would get first dibs on seats in the school, which would be open to outsiders if room is available, he said.

But the plans, submitted yesterday to the Boston Redevelopment Authority, are not sitting well with city and Boston public school officials. To them, Hynes, the grandson of former Boston mayor John B. Hynes , is implying that the city's public schools aren't good enough and signal ing that he plans to cater to the upper class.

Hynes, who is modeling the Seaport development after a project in South Korea, said he will strive to have a socioeconomic mix in the new residences and the school. "This isn't a class warfare issue," said Hynes, CEO and president of Gale International. "We're bringing in more families, and there's a component out there that's looking for this type of educational platform."

Hynes, who also built the State Street Financial Center in 2003, said he expects the city and state approval process, which can occur in phases, to take up to 18 months. Construction for the entire project would take three to four years. The school, which would probably open in 2012 and is tentatively called the Seaport International School, will focus on foreign languages, science, and technology. A board of Harvard professors and educators from prominent prep schools including Milton and Concord academies will help design the 3,000 square foot school and develop its curriculum.

Hynes estimated that high school tuition would be between $25,000 and $30,000; fees would be lower for elementary and middle grades. He plans to set aside 5 percent to 10 percent of seats for low-income Boston children, who would be admitted on full scholarship based on an entrance exam.

Mayor Thomas M. Menino called Hynes's school proposal a "hare-brained idea," saying not enough families live in the Seaport area now or in the near future to warrant building a new public or private school.

"We're not going to build schools for political purposes," Menino said. "We put them where they're needed."

While upper middle-class families on Beacon Hill and the Back Bay have clamored for a neighborhood public school for years, the mayor has put new schools in the more diverse neighborhoods of Dorchester, Mattapan, and Roxbury, which have seen booms in school-aged children.

South Boston's developing waterfront only has about 100 families with children under 18, according to the Boston Redevelopment Authority. The authority predicts that by 2040, there will be about 3,100 families with children .

Boston schools superintendent Michael G. Contompasis said the school system's five South Boston elementary schools, none of which are near the waterfront, could accommodate population growth at Seaport. He said he does not see the need for the private school.

"He's catering to the upper end," Contompasis said. "This guy's just coming out and saying they don't want anything to do with the public schools and will build their little enclave. What's he going to do? Put a big gate around the place? He should know better. Wasn't he the grandson of a former mayor?"

Vivien Li, executive director of the Boston Harbor Association and a supporter of Hynes's plans, said the developer decided it would be politically easier to build a private school than to convince the school system to locate a new public school in the neighborhood.

"He felt it was too much of an uphill battle," Li said.

Hynes said his development, called Seaport Square, would not solely cater to the rich. The residential project, located between Congress and Seaport Boulevard, would be a mix of apartments and condos that would cost between $500 and $1,000 per square foot if the units were selling today. The price will match market prices in the area. Affordable housing would make up between 10 percent and 15 percent of the units.

Private schools geared toward residents in new housing is an unusual but increasingly popular amenity, especially in areas where public schools have earned a bad reputation, according to the National Association of Independent Schools, in Washington, D.C.

"For some developers, a private school is the new must-have, equivalent to granite countertops, great rooms, or garages," said Myra McGovern, the association's spokeswoman.

Still, many developers who initially talk about starting a private school drop the plans, she said, when they have trouble finding educators to run the school. By statute, private schools are also supposed to be approved by the local public school committee.

Patrick F. Bassett, president of the independent schools association, said Hynes's idea is smart. The city has intense competition for private schools.

"They want young, prosperous families, of course, and young, prosperous families want neighborhood schools they can count on and they're increasingly worried that can't be a public school," Bassett said.

Private schools have sprung up in similar high-end developments in Missouri, California, and New Jersey, according to the national private schools group.

Hynes said he hopes the Seaport development will be as popular as New Songdo City in South Korea, a 1,500-acre high-rise urban development he is overseeing. The project includes two international schools developed by the same Harvard advisory group that will work on the Seaport school.

The South Korean schools have been the primary draw for thousands of prospective residents, Hynes said. The development drew 65,000 applicants for 2,500 units, he said. The development, which includes office space, also drew corporations seeking to relocate their headquarters and executives, something Hynes hopes will happen in South Boston.

Some residents said they hoped the new school would entice their neighbors to stay in the city to raise their children instead of fleeing to the suburbs.

"All this stuff should have been in the works a long time ago," said Steve Hollinger, co founder of the Seaport Alliance for a Neighborhood Design. "It's obvious by the number of kids [now there] that you need to plan for schools. It's pretty much A, B, C."

Tracy Jan can be reached at tjan@globe.com.

Correction: Because of a reporting error, a Page One story yesterday about plans for a private school in South Boston's Seaport District gave an incorrect estimate for the size of the building. The school would be 300,000 square feet.

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