By Anna Merlan
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By Albert Samaha
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After five years of legal wrangling, a jury will decide the fate of CHARAS/El Bohio, a 22-year-old Latino community center on East 9th street, whose plight symbolizes the battle over gentrification on the Lower East Side.
Chino Garcia, a former gang leader turned community organizer who helped take over the abandoned, five-story elementary school in 1979, is in court fighting an eviction proceeding brought by developer Gregg Singer, who purchased the building for $3.15 million at a city auction in 1998.
For two years, CHARAS has refused to leave, fending off legal threats as community members, politicians, and artistsfrom actress Susan Sarandon to officials at the Department of Housing and Urban Developmenthave rallied around the beloved institution. State and federal courts have rejected CHARAS's efforts to block or reverse the sale. Now a jury will decide if the center has to get out.
"This is definitely a make-or-break case for us," says CHARAS's attorney Catharine Grad. "The two central issues are whether Singer intends to lease the building for 'community facility use,' as required by the deed, and whether several units in the building are covered under the Loft Law, since more than three tenants have been living at CHARAS since 1980."
Last October, a civil court ruled that Singer cannot evict CHARAS unless he establishes the building will be maintained for community use. Singer is currently appealing that decision, but in this trial "the burden of proof is on him," says Grad.
"This is definitely a make-or-break case for us."
While Singer's lawyers declined to comment on the case, Singer dismisses CHARAS's claims: "They're just making a whole emotional thing out of this when the reality is, I bought the building; [CHARAS's] lease expired, so they have to get out."
A former mortgage broker who develops condos and shopping malls, Singer says he intends to lease the building to "schools, medical facilities, social service and arts groups [that are] legitimate not-for-profits that benefit the community." He plans to spend up to $12 million in renovations. "People are going to thank me for this. Right now that building looks like shit," says Singer, pointing to the fourth and fifth floors, which remain empty except for the pigeons. But he's been offering space at $32 per square foota rate that CHARAS staffers say is far beyond the reach of local groups.
In court last week, Singer testified that he had several prospective tenants, but said none have been willing to negotiate a lease for fear of being targeted by CHARAS supporters, who have staged pickets and launched fax-jams against groups rumored to be interested in the property. One witness, the head of the Amsterdam Nursing Home, told how he had been intimidated by protesters. But under cross-examination, the nursing home operator acknowledged that he backed out in large part because he could not afford the price.
Singer insists his rents are below market. "There are billions of dollars in grants available to not-for-profits," he told the Voice, going so far as to suggest that the building could house "after-school programs for kids from Avenue D." In real estate listings, he's offered to come down to $20 a square foot for a onetime fee of $2 million a floor. Observers say that price would more likely appeal to well-endowed not-for-profit foundations, a far different kind of community than the freewheeling, low-income groups that CHARAS currently serves.
Long a haven for struggling artistsback in the early '80s, CHARAS nurtured talents like Spike Lee, Miguel Pinero, and John Leguizamothe center has flourished in its eleventh hour, despite the 1999 murder of its cofounder Armando Perez. Last summer, volunteers refurbished the school's 391-seat basement auditorium to host the "Fringe Festival," and the first floor has been repainted in a burst of colorful Latin murals. As high rents force out small theater and community groups, CHARAS remains one of the last places in Manhattan where folks can find cheap rehearsal space, or a meeting hall for neighborhood organizing and events. Much of CHARAS's long-term programmingalong with ambitious plans for rehabbing the buildinglanguished after Giuliani moved to sell the property in 1996. But CHARAS still houses 16 artist studios, a bike-repair school, computer classes, and offices for the 9th Street Theater, Circus Amok, and Great Small Works.
"If we go, it's really gonna hurt not just us, but the community," says the 54-year-old Garcia. "Most of the community groups on the Lower East Side are losing their spaces. All the storefronts are getting taken over by bars and restaurants."
If the jury sides with CHARAS, its future remains uncertain. Singer would no doubt appealhe's currently suing CHARAS for $600,000 in lost revenues. But Garcia hopes that by surviving this war of attrition, he can push for some kind of settlement. "We've already offered to buy the building back from Singer for the $1 million he put down at auction, and to take over his mortgage with the city, but he won't take it," says CHARAS organizer Susan Howard. "So we're doing what people on the Lower East Side have always done: refusing to go quietly."