By Alex Distefano
By Scott Snowden
By Anna Merlan
By Steve Almond
By Jena Ardell
By Jon Campbell
By Alan Scherstuhl
By Tessa Stuart
Eight weeks after the city auctioned the CHARAS/El Bohio building, the Giuliani administration continues to stonewall demands that it identify the purchaser of the Latino-run community center on 605 East 9th Street, which has housed dozens of arts and activist groups over the past 19 years.
"Until the title is transferred, it's not really sold. It's unfinished business," maintains Denise Collins, spokesperson for the Department of Citywide Administrative Services (DCAS), which presided over the controversial July 20 auction. DCAS officials initially claimed that the city had 45 days in which to finalize the deal. Collins now says that according to the actual terms of the sale, the city has up to 240 days to close the deal, at which time it plans to announce who put up the $3.15 million to buy CHARAS. And with litigation challenging the sale pending, Collins says DCAS has the authority to extend that 240-day term "indefinitely."
The administration's continued silence is fueling a firestorm of protest not just from the local community, but from City Council Speaker Peter Vallone, Manhattan beep C. Virginia Fields, and the entire Manhattan delegation to the City Council. For these and every other elected pol on the Lower East Side, the secrecy surrounding CHARAS's sale has become symbolic of Giuliani's open disdain for democratic process. "Whether it's Yankee Stadium on 161st Street in the Bronx or CHARAS on the Lower East Side, the people have a right to self-determination," Vallone told a boisterous crowd of 150 artists, activists, and supporters who marched to City Hall last Wednesday to demand the mayor rescind the sale.
Vallone and Lower East Side councilmember Margarita López are now threatening to sue if the city does not identify the buyer soon. "In my opinion, the sale and the whole process surrounding the sale is illegal," charges López. Three weeks ago, Vallone and López submitted a Freedom of Information Law request to obtain the purchaser's name. DCAS did not acknowledge the request until last Friday (after several queries), even though by law, the administration has five days to respond. In its response, DCAS said it needed time to "compile the information." City officials insist their position on CHARAS is no different than their stance on other, less controversial properties. "We don't reveal the name of any buyer until the deal is closed," says Collins. "My guess is they don't want the buyer scared off, because the truth is, the buyer is gonna be sued, too," counters councilmember Kathryn Freed. That's what happened in March 1997, the last time the city sought to auction the building housing CHARAS. Faced with overwhelming community opposition and a lawsuit to block the sale, prospective bidders backed off.
In its lawsuit, CHARAS alleged that the city ignored a 1982 land use agreement that recommended giving CHARAS a long-term lease. In addition, the center says that the city violated a court stipulation requiring it to negotiate with CHARAS in "good faith." Although a judge ruled against CHARAS in June 1997, thecenter is appealing that decision. The case is scheduled to be heard September 29.
Legal questions aside, many on the Lower East Side are outraged that the city would refuse to disclose the buyer's intentions for the former elementary school building, since its sales contract stipulates that it be maintained for "community use."
"How can you decide what 'community use' is without community input?" demands López. "What gives Giuliani the right to define what this community needs?" She and others also wonder what type of community group could afford to purchase CHARAS for $3.15 million, when it will take at least $5 million more to fully renovate the place. Many speculate that the center will be converted into luxury apartments, as was the Christodora building, a former settlement house located just next door to CHARAS. But city officials insist that because of the land use agreement, no portion of the building may be used for market-rate housing.