Love It or Level It

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

Other schools named by Singer include Cooper Union, Pace University, F.I.T., Touro College, New York Law School, and the New School.

CUNY Graduate Center also showed preliminary interest, according to a January 2003 letter provided by Singer. But the school says it dropped the idea because the arrangement Singer was offering—674-square-foot two-bedroom "suites" housing four students paying $1,100 each—was both too expensive and not suited to graduate students, who generally prefer to live alone or at least in separate bedrooms.

In a May 2003 letter, New School vice president James Murtha stated he would "definitely be interested in acquiring" up to 500 beds "should an appropriate facility become available in the East Village."

photo: Nicholas Burnham


See also:
Romancing the Ruin: Inside P.S. 64
Photo gallery by Holly Northrop and Sarah Ferguson

Through a spokesperson, Murtha acknowledges the New School considered leasing from Singer but then moved to develop its own dorm on 20th Street after Singer "ran into problems at the site."

photo: Nicholas Burnham
Whether Singer could actually overturn a landmark designation by stripping the school is another story. One real estate lobbyist familiar with the deliberations scoffed at the idea. "He'd be the Harry Macklowe of his time," the lobbyist, who asked not to be named, quipped, referring to the time back in 1985 when Macklowe tore down four SRO hotels in the middle of the night in defiance of the Koch administration. "They'd kill him. If he strips it, he'll never get a permit for a dorm there. All he's doing is making a lot of lawyers rich."

But there appears to be little legal recourse to stop him if he wants to do it. On May 30, the Appellate Division lifted a court injunction blocking Singer from stripping the building.

The injunction was sought by four members of the East Village Community Coalition.

Among them are two penthouse owners at the Christodora House, a luxury condominium off Avenue B, and the owner of the Charlie Parker House—all properties directly adjacent to Singer's proposed dorm.

In court papers, they argued that a dorm for 800-plus kids would rob their "views" and "air" and would flood the neighborhood with fast-food joints.

The EVCC folks have hired their own experts to gum up Singer's dorm plan, including former Manhattan buildings commissioner Ron Livian and the PR firm of George Artz, who initially worked for Singer.

For his part, Singer insists that he can no longer afford to simply develop the building "as is." In the past eight years, he claims, he has invested some $14 million, including the initial sale price; some $200,000 a year in real estate taxes; and big legal, architectural, and engineering fees; plus the $100,000 yearly fee he pays himself to manage the property. Adding a fair return to his investors, he claims he's in it for $25 million.

photo: Nicholas Burnham

His opponents call those numbers wildly inflated. "He can't claim hardship," says EVCC co-founder Michael Rosen, one of the penthouse owners, who has made preserving the historic "integrity" of P.S. 64 his crusade. "So far the only thing he's done with this building is leverage money off of it," Rosen adds, pointing to a $12.6 million loan Singer took out two years ago.

Regardless, Singer, who now has four different law firms working for him, says he's not walking without being reimbursed for the full value of the building, which he says is assessed at $51 million, plus $36 million for the air rights.

"I'd love for the city to claim eminent domain," he enthuses. "They'd have to pay prevailing fair market value. They'd be so screwed. I have to have the air rights or else the city has to give me the value for them someplace else."

Singer insists the Mastro suit is more than just a pressure tactic. He jokes that he's looking for a ghostwriter for a book he'd call Corruption in New York, subtitled Nightmare on 9th Street.

"They are never getting the building unless they make a fair deal with Singer," Singer continues, lapsing into the third person. "They're forcing Singer to take down the facade as the only remedy to protect Singer's rights. It's not about the community. It's about Gregg Singer and market value. That's how real estate works."

Though branded by many as a villain, Singer hails from a family that was a major benefactor on the Lower East Side. His great-grandfather Louis founded the Home of Old Israel, which provided free housing and care to seniors from 1922 to 1965 from its locations on Henry and Jefferson streets. In 1966 Singer's grandfather Jack built Seagirt Village in Far Rockaway, Queens—then the largest low-income senior-housing facility in the country. And Singer's father and mother established a nonprofit drug treatment center in Florida.

Singer won't say much about his own track record. He says he specializes in foreclosed and "problem" properties and has developed and financed numerous commercial and residential projects, including middle-income townhouses in Westchester, apartment complexes in New Jersey and California, and a Wal-Mart in Georgia.

He won't reveal who his investors are for fear they'll be targeted. "Some are my family; some are other families we've invested together with for generations," he says.

As Singer tells it, if community groups and area politicians had worked with him in the beginning, the building would already be fixed up and serving the neighborhood, without all this fuss about a dormitory tower.

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