Love It or Level It

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

After he bought it, Singer claims he reached out to hundreds of arts and ser- vice groups, schools, hospitals, and city agencies. But they were all turned off, he says, by the rowdy picketing staged by activists outside the school, along with threats from Lopez to withhold funding from groups that leased space there—a charge Lopez vehemently denies.

In 1999, Singer claims, he offered to rent P.S. 64 for as little as $12.50 a square foot to the Lower Eastside Girls Club, which was seeking a home. Back then, he says, he didn't need to ask for as much because he was only in it for $3.15 million. But this beautiful deal was "shut down by Margarita [Lopez]," he claims.

Girls Club executive director Lyn Pentecost laughs at the story. She says she never even discussed rents with Singer because he was only offering a 30-year lease—not enough to justify the huge investment required to fix the building.

photo: Nicholas Burnham


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

Instead, Pentecost says she offered to buy it for $10 million, which she says Singer turned down. (Singer claims he never got a serious offer.)

More recently, Singer's lawsuit claims that Councilwoman Rosie Mendez warned groups not to work with him—among them the Doe Fund, which provides housing and job training to homeless men.

"That's an outright lie," says Doe Fund director Charles McDonald. "I'm shocked that he would say something like that in a court pleading."

photo: Nicholas Burnham

McDonald says he visited the building several months ago with the idea of sharing space with other social-service groups, but never made an offer—both because the place required too much work to make it "economically worthwhile" and because, he says, "it's like walking into a quagmire. Life's too short."

Although Singer recently took the property off the market to pursue the dorm deal, in 1995 he was offering the space for $50 to $75 million, or $5 million for a long-term net lease.

"That's not even close to what institutions can pay," says David Lebenstein, a broker who specializes in siting not-for-profits. "The building has great bones, but it needs extensive renovations, so nobody can pay that on top of the $20 million or so you're going to need to make it usable to anybody."

What's missing in the battle over P.S. 64 is a realistic dialogue about what could happen there at this stage. Singer may have painted himself into a corner with his dormitory plan. But if the community doesn't want a dorm, what does it want?

"It's like a big taboo. It's like you're not allowed to talk about it," says Joseph Pupello, the new executive director of the Federation of East Village Artists, which runs the Howl Festival.

"My job at FEVA is to look at every possibility for either preserving or creating new cultural space here," says Pupello, who formerly worked with Bette Midler to help save community gardens. "It's not like we have endless buildings around here, but no one's allowed to have this discussion because there are these groups deeply invested in it."

Pupello says he's not necessarily opposed to a dorm or to adding some floors to the old school—if the community can get something out of it. He points to the new Avalon Bay project on Houston Street and the Bowery developed by one of Charas's old allies, the Cooper Square Committee. There, CSC traded market-rate housing for low-income apartments and a new YMCA.

These days, any talk of altering P.S. 64 is tantamount to heresy in the East Village. Yet Pupello worries the community may be unnecessarily closing off options. "OK, landmark it, but for what?" he says. "There's no guarantee that if we landmark this building, it will become a community center."

True, landmarking could lower Singer's sale price because it would require any new owner to contend with the LPC's exacting specifications. It would also make it much more difficult, though not impossible, to develop on top of the existing building.

But landmarking could also up the cost for not-for-profit groups to lease space there because it would increase the upkeep of the building—regardless of who owns it.

Leaving aside the cost of repairing all the fancy terra-cotta work, who can come up with the millions needed to make it habitable, let alone the additional money to satisfy Singer?

Some of the Charas veterans are setting up a new not-for-profit entity in hopes of creating the Armando Perez Community Center, named after Charas's co-founder, who was murdered in Queens shortly after the building was auctioned.

The group's mission statement speaks of developing art, job training, and cultural pro gramming for "politically disenfranchised people," primarily low- and moderate- income people from the neighborhood— in essence replicating the vision of the old Charas/El Bohio.

Lopez, Mendez, and Velázquez have all taken part in the talks; Velázquez even suggested she might be able to get $1 million to $2 million in federal funding to help renovate the school.

But that would be a drop in the bucket at this stage. Lopez talks about remaking P.S. 64 into a "Lincoln Center for the Lower East Side," serving area arts groups and not-for-profits. "If they can do that uptown, why can't people do that in this community?" she demands. Yet when asked how such a center might be financed, she dodges: "The community has to answer that. I'm not in office now, so it's not for me to decide. My only responsibility was to preserve the building."

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