Love It or Level It

The saga of old P.S. 64 is a real education

Rudy Giuliani left many legacies to New York. One of them is the monumental stalemate over a century-old school building on East 9th Street, off Tompkins Square, that was once a vital part of the city's social history but is better known these days for just being empty. After 70 years as P.S. 64, the building became home, for two decades, to a left-leaning Puerto Rican–run community center known as Charas/El Bohio. In 1998, amid clamorous protests, the Giuliani administration sold it for $3.15 million to private developer Gregg Singer. Charas and its supporters spent three years in court fighting to undo the sale before being tossed out in December 2001. Since then, this 135,000-square-foot property in the heart of the East Village has sat boarded up while Singer, community groups, and the city battle over what it should be.

The only people this once vibrant community center serves these days are lobbyists and attorneys hired to argue about its future, and the building's only tenants are the pigeons nesting inside its moldering classrooms.

The next move belongs to the Landmarks Preservation Commission, which is expected to rule June 20 on whether to give landmark status to the historic building. That would be a victory for members of the East Village Community Coalition, which launched the campaign to stop Singer from razing the back half of the building and putting up a 19-story student dorm.

The coalition has lined up the support of every elected official in the area and flooded the LPC with more than 25,000 letters and postcards to "save our school," which was designed by New York's master school architect C.B.J. Snyder in 1904 to serve the area's then teeming immigrant population.

At a May 16 hearing, scores of neighborhood folks pleaded to designate P.S. 64's French-renaissance exterior as both a "monument" to the aspirations of immigrants on the Lower East Side and a "vital cultural resource" crassly snatched out of the community's hands by Giuliani.

Long before Charas revived it, P.S. 64 was a community center. It was the first public school to offer free, open-air theater to city residents, who in 1911 strained to hear Sydney Greenstreet recite "Gunga Din" over the din of trolley cars rumbling down 10th Street. Preservationists told of P.S. 64's storied alumni (Oscar-winning director Joseph Mankiewicz, actor Sam Levene, and Yip Harburg, who wrote the lyrics for The Wizard of Oz) and of rallies and speeches by FDR, Governor Al Smith, and Mayor Jimmy Walker in the old auditorium.

Fred Schwartz, architect of the new Staten Island Ferry terminal, asked, "Who would sacrifice a prime historical example of architecture that elevated education for the masses by the very nature of its design?"


Apparently, Gregg Singer would.

In a last-ditch gambit to preserve his air rights—there's up to 120,000 square feet of developable space above the five-story building, he claims—Singer is now threatening to act on an already approved alteration permit that allows him to strip all the decorative detail from P.S. 64's historic facade. Under the law, even landmarking a building cannot prevent an owner from acting on a pre-existing permit.

"Landmarking it is just an invitation to me to strip the building," Singer says. "They're putting me in a position where legally I have to take down the facade in order to preserve my development rights. It's the only way I can overturn the landmarking [in court]."

As proof he's not bluffing, at a follow-up hearing on June 6, Singer showed the landmarks commission a Photoshopped image of P.S. 64 as a plain, red brick building shorn of its white limestone veneer, ornate pediments, and copper flashing.

image
photo: Nicholas Burnham

"See, this is what it's going to look like," Singer tells the Voice. "I have $36 million worth of air rights. I'm not giving that away. My partners would sue me."

Singer says he's invested way too much to get saddled with simply restoring the dilapidated school building, which by deed can only be developed for "community facility use." He argues that P.S. 64 is no more special than dozens of other schools Snyder built across the city. If the city wanted it landmarked, he says, it should have done so before it sold him the property.

At the hearing, the landmarks commissioners appeared aghast when an architectural historian hired by Singer defended the developer's right to "scalp" the building.

Nor did it help Singer's community relations when the historian, Andrew Alpern (author of such tracts as Apartments for the Affluent: A Historical Survey of Buildings in New York) termed P.S. 64 as a "poor relative from the other side of the tracks" when compared to the 13 other Snyder schools that have already been landmarked.


His choice of phrasing drew fire from Melissa Maldonado-Salcedo, an aide to Congresswoman Nydia Velázquez who was born and raised on the Lower East Side—"Loisaida" in Spanglish. "This building was on the wrong side of the tracks," Maldonado-Salcedo replied, "and that's exactly why it should be celebrated and honored. P.S. 64 is the essence of who we are in Loisaida."

For now, Singer can't touch the building before June 21 because of a standstill agreement that he signed with the LPC, which in turn agreed not to vote on the matter before June 20. But he has forced the LPC into the uncomfortable position of having to rule on a building whose architectural value could be severely compromised after the fact.

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