An Unexpected Development Site for a Leading Special Education Provider Cooke School and Institute

Founded in 1987 through a grassroots parent-led movement, the Cooke Center School and Institute serves children and young adults with special needs. The center’s ongoing growth led to its programs and operations being dispersed across four facilities in as many neighborhoods. Cooke engaged Denham Wolf to identify several scenarios that would allow for the full or partial co-location of its facilities. Ultimately, the firm supported Cooke in acquiring an 18,000 square foot development site.

In addition to academics and disability-specific therapies, Cooke provides a comprehensive student life experience with rich extracurricular offerings, structured community engagement opportunities, and professional development services. Through Cooke’s programs, students develop a stronger sense of independence and increased ability to contribute to their communities. A striking example of the organization’s impact is the 53% of Cooke alumni who are currently employed, compared with the national employment rate of 17% for people with disabilities.

This legacy is due to small group of very committed parents, who were frustrated by the dearth of high quality, inclusive, and affordable special education in 1980’s New York City. Since their founding of Cooke, the institution has become unparalleled in its commitment to private special education, regardless of a student’s financial status. Achieving this success has required remarkable dedication and resourcefulness over the past thirty years, such as addressing the growth of the student body by making the most of found facilities, including underutilized parts of local churches.

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Over time, Cooke came to operate its three educational programs—the Grammar School, the Academy, and SKILLs—out of three distinct facilities. Spatial constraints resulted in housing the organization’s administrative operations in an entirely separate location. Cooke engaged Denham Wolf to strategically assess these existing facilities and explore a range of consolidation scenarios, with the goal of improving the somewhat disjointed experience of Cooke’s students and supporting the organization’s continued growth.

By unpacking the specific facets of Cooke’s goals and thoroughly analyzing several New York City neighborhoods, the Denham Wolf team was able to identify and support Cooke in acting upon a unique off-market opportunity on Manhattan’s Madison Avenue. The site’s deed restriction limits the size of new facilities and the ways in which the property can be used, lessening its traditional appeal as a site for new development. However, the property’s atypical features proved compatible with Cooke’s preferred development scenario. Nuanced negotiations ensued, resulting in Cooke’s acquisition of the 18,000 square foot site in East Harlem.

Similarly creative were the structure of the team and of the nature of the deals that catalyzed the nonprofit-to-nonprofit transaction. To facilitate Cooke’s purchase of the site, which was previously owned by the United Methodist City Society, Azimuth Development Group critically mitigated much of the upfront financial risk. The expertise of Cleary Gottlieb Steen & Hamilton and of PBDW Architects further aided Cooke in confidently moving forward with the acquisition.

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“Our team’s tenacity and commitment to Cooke’s mission ensured the success of this transaction, which will support the institution’s growth over the next 30 years and beyond. We are proud to have found the right answer, as complex as it may have been, for such a deserving organization.”

—Paul G. Wolf, Managing Principal, CEO, President at Denham Wolf

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Cooke’s new East Harlem property will soon house a 67,000 square foot state-of-the-art educational facility that serves all Cooke students up to 18 years of age. By securing a site that supports a building of this size, Cooke will be able to offer a wider variety of shared amenities, such as a full-sized gym, a diversity of therapeutic spaces, and studios for students’ rehearsals and performances. The facility will also feature full ADA accessibility and include several unique physical and technological characteristics that address students’ auditory and visual sensitivities.

Cooke School and Institute
Cooke School and Institute
East Harlem, NYC