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For five years, Gregg Singer has been seeking to capitalize on the old CHARAS/El Bohio community center on East 9th Street in the East Village, which the developer bought for $3.15 million at a highly contested auction in 1998.
But his latest schemeto raze the 100-year-old former elementary school and erect a 23-story dormitory for area universitieshas only succeeded in mustering a new army of adversaries who are crusading to reclaim the building as a neighborhood arts and education center.
"That dorm is a total abomination," says Michael Rosen pointing to a rendering of the proposed slab-shaped high rise, which would tower over Tompkins Square. An email circulated by Rosen's group, Stopthedorm.org, reads: "Can you imagine Tompkins Square Park as the front lawn to a multi-campus, 800-bed transient dormitory? Can you imagine the Tompkins Square neighborhood filled with T-shirt shops, strip mall fast food franchises and faceless bars destroying the rich artistic and cultural diversity of our neighborhoodoverrun by the power of the corporate universities?"
Strong stuff, especially when you consider that Rosen and several other StoptheDorm members are residents of adjacent Christadora House, a 16-story former settlement house and one time community center whose conversion to luxury condos in 1986 made it a hated symbol of gentrification and a repeated target of community ire.
Indeed, Rosen, who owns the Christadora's penthouse, is also the developer of Red Square on Houston Street, a 13-story apartment complex that helped usher in a wave of market-rate housing in Alphabet City when it went up in 1989. But on the rapidly re-developing Lower East Side, yesterday's interloper is today's preservationist. And Singer's brash plan has opened an old wound in the neighborhood, forging alliances where there were none.
At a recent StoptheDorm.org meeting in Rosen's airy triplex, an insurance writer and hedge-fund manager strategized alongside Clayton Patterson, the rabble-rousing videographer whose infamous tape of the 1988 Tompkins Square riot showed anarchists smashing the Christadora's plate-glass door with chants of "Die Yuppie Scum!"
The group also includes the owner of the Charlie Parker House on Avenue B, members of the Federation of East Village Artists (FEVA)which runs of the HOWL! Festival, a director of the Nuyorican Poet's Café, and residents like Sharice Vadon, who lives in the projects on Avenue D and runs a hip-hop dance group for local youth. "I'm sick of having my kids rehearse in project hallways and the park," says Vadon.
So far, lobbying efforts, combined with an all-out email and phone barrage by members of the Save CHARAS Committee, have paid off. Last month, the National Development Corporation, the not-for-profit that Singer hoped would sponsor the dorm, backed out because of community pressure. And the area's state representatives, whose support Singer needs to get financing through the New York Dormitory Authority, have instead joined Congresswoman Nydia Velazquez and Councilwoman Margarita Lopez in endorsing StoptheDorm's campaign to landmark the old P.S. 64, which would bar Singer from tearing it down.
Singer concedes his dorm has been checked, for now. "I guess these legislators don't want to help college kids get an education in New York. It's pretty horrifying."
He blames CHARAS supportersand Lopez in particularfor "forcing" him to come up with the dorm scheme by discouraging other groups from leasing space in the existing building, which by law can only be developed for "community facility use." "A lot of groups were interested, but Margarita told them if they went in, she'd cut their funding," Singer alleges.
"That's a lie," Lopez counters. "I have never talked with any group about not renting there."
"The one that Singer needs to blame is himself," Lopez maintains, "because he came into this community and took away what the community fought for. And one way or another, that building is going to be put back for real use by the community. He doesn't have any choice."
And so the stalemate continues, leaving 135,000 square feet of prime real estate empty, save for the occasional production crew filming PlayStation videos in the basement's moldering 400-seat theater.
Singer's real problem may be his oversized expectations. He spent three years fending off CHARAS's legal efforts to undo the salea process that earned him plenty of bad blood. And while it's true that CHARAS's allies have faxed letters to not-for-profits saying it would be "unethical" to seek space there, several groups interviewed by the Voice say the stumbling block was Singer's insistence on getting top dollar.
One established not-for-profit considered buying or leasing three floors to create an alternative high school and performing arts center, but says it was put off by the $22 million price for raw space needing at least $15 million in renovations. Another group was recently turned down on a $20 million offer. The asking price listed on Singer's website is $50 millionincluding $10 million for air rights on 75,000 square feet.
Members of Stopthedorm believe Singer may be allowing the school to deteriorate to justify tearing it down. They point to a May 5 permit issued by the Department of Buildings to remove the façade's cast-stone elementsincluding the cornices and ornate stonework that frame the dormer windowsdestroying much of the building's classic beaux arts detail.
"He's trying to destroy any reason for landmarking it," says Rosen.
Singer calls the allegation "silly," and says the permit is merely a renewal of an application to repair the façade that was filed over a year ago.
While Rosen concedes it would be "disingenuous" to say he wasn't compelled to save the Christadora's panoramic views, which the dorm would have blocked, he insists he's fighting for something larger.
"I can buy views. I can't replace the preciousness of this neighborhood." Indeed, these days he sounds like a Jane Jacobs acolyte, extemporizing about the "soul" of the Lower East Side and the need to turn the whole area into a "historic district" to prevent further high-rise incursion.
On June 12, Stopthedorm is calling a rally in Tompkins Square to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the school built by famed architect C. B. J. Snyder. They're also trying to form a coalition to buy back the building. There's talk of transforming it into a "Smithsonian of the Counterculture" or bringing in an alternative high school, with CHARAS playing a leading role.
That does little to ease the wariness of CHARAS veterans like Susan Howard, who fear these new and more monied defenders will usurp CHARAS's role. "Where were they when we were fighting to save CHARAS? They're just trying to divvy it up for their own interests."
But CHARAS's ability to fight is limited; its board members are currently prohibited from speaking out against Singer or his development plans until May 2005 because of a legal stipulation they signed to settle a defamation suit. And even CHARAS's strongest supporters concede the group is in no position to finance or administer the building on its own.
Beyond meeting Singer's price, it could take $20 million to make the building viable. But with seasoned players like Rosen and Phil Hartman, the owner of Two Boots Pizza and the Pioneer movie theater, battling alongside the dogged lefties and artists of the Lower East Side, observers like Clayton Patterson say one thing is clear: "Gregg Singer just bought himself a much bigger headache."