Landmark Disaster: P.S. 64 Stripped This Week?
East Village activists were jubilant Tuesday morning when the Landmarks Preservations Commission voted unanimously to landmark the old P.S. 64 on East 9th Street in Manhattan.
The LPC's vote puts in check owner Gregg Singer's controversial plan to raze the back half of the century-old school building in order to put up a 19-story student dorm. (Celebrating activists, including Roland Legiardi-Laura at left and Councilmember Rosie Mendez in the middle, pictured below.)
But landmarking the old school may well provoke Singer to follow through on his threat to shear off the ornate pediments and white terra-cotta trim from P.S. 64's French Renaissance Revival facade.
Legally, Singer can still do this work because of an alteration permit approved by the city's Department of Buildings three years ago.
"It's coming down," vowed Singer, who did not attend the hearing. And he means right now. (Below are before and after renderings of the building, provided by Singer.)
Singer says stripping the five-story former elementary school building is now his only means of overturning the landmarks designation in court and preserving his air rights, which he claims are worth $36 million.
For the last five weeks, Singer has been barred from doing anything to P.S. 64 because of a "standstill agreement" he signed with the LPC. But that agreement expires Wednesday.
"First we'll set up the scaffolding and then start taking off the stone early next week, if not Friday," he said. He even offered to give the Voice a piece of the first block "chiseled."
When asked if there was anything that might persuade him to call off the wrecking crew, Singer seemed doubtful. "If the city works in the next 24 to 36 hours to make a deal with me, I don't know," he responded. "All this time, they were supposed to be negotiating in good faith with me, it was a waste of time." He claims that members of the LPC initially worked with him to redesign his dormitory tower in order to preserve the more ornate 9th Street Side of the school building. An attorney for the city insisted the LPC never collaborated with Singer on any dorm scheme.
Over the last month, Singer complains city officials and City Council rep Rosie Mendez have spurned his efforts to work out some kind of compromise that might save the school's face. That's not surprising since Singer has also slapped the city with a $100 million lawsuit, accusing Mayor Bloomberg, the LPC, and other city agencies of colluding to block his dorm plan.
"He has reached out to my office, but Singer is also suing the City, so I and everybody else has to tread lightly in these waters," Mendez told the Voice.
Mendez balked at the notion that by campaigning to landmark P.S. 64, she may have only propelled the eminently stubborn Singer to hack off the building's historic visage.
"He can stop himself," Mendez countered. "Legally he can do the work, but morally it's wrong, and if he moves forward now, that just shows what kind of person he is."
Mendez said she would try to meet with Singer. But she also said she and community activists were prepared to use "peaceful means" to defend P.S. 64 if it came down to that. Nevertheless, she and members of the East Village Community Coalition, which lobbied vociferously for two years to save P.S. 64, seemed incredulous that Singer would go ahead with his threat to "scalp" P.S. 64 now that it's officially landmarked.
"We hope he'll have a logical epiphany and ask himself what he would gain," said the EVCC's Roland Legiardi-Laura. "Why would he spend the money to strip the building, which would reduce its inherent value, and then spend a lot of money going to court to overturn the landmarking, which may not happen?"
Singer, however, insisted it's a risk worth taking. He estimated a court fight could last three to five years and cost him another million dollars, money he's willing to spend if it means winning $36 million in development rights.
In the meantime, Singer said he plans to rent the building to a private "philanthropy" that will provide drug treatment and social services to the local community. Yet if he has such a deal on hand, why can't he preserve the building as is?
"I've got over $20 million invested in it," Singer responded, referring to the eight years he has tried to develop the building. "We're not leasing it. It's too late for that. They made their bed, now they have to deal with the consequences.”
"To lease it as is doesn't make any sense to anybody, because at this point they'd have to pay above market because we've sunk too much money into it," he added.
But stripping the facade is a big gamble. The courts have never overturned a ruling by the LPC to landmark a particular building. And preservationists say it's unlikely a judge would overturn this designation based on the physical state of the school alone—especially if Singer were the one who scraped it. Prior to their vote, the landmarks commissioners did their best to highlight P.S. 64's cultural and historic role on Lower East Side as a beacon to immigrant children—a legacy that vice chair Pablo Vengoechea said would remain "regardless of what could be stripped." (More renderings of what the building could look like, provided by Singer, are pictured below.)
The LPC also paid tribute to CHARAS/El Bohio, the Latino group that remade P.S. 64 into a community center after the city abandoned it in the late 1970s. (The group was evicted in 2001 after the Giuliani administration auctioned the buildling to Singer.) The panel recognized CHARAS for its role both in rescuing the building from the waves of arson and disinvestment that plagued the Lower East Side during the 1970s and early '80s, and for serving as a "physical and symbolic center" of New York's urban homesteading movement.
Commissioner Roberta Brandes Gratz said the vote to designate P.S. 64 was one of the commission's "most significant decisions," because it marked the first time the LPC was recognizing the role of grassroots groups who used "self help" and "sweat equity" to preserve buildings in the face of municipal neglect.
Commissioner Stephen Byrns heaped on yet more praise, terming the now boarded-up school a “cathedral of education” and "messenger of hope" in an area that once defined the phrase "melting pot."
“Just as we can study the waxing and waning of the fortunes of the great city of Rome, one can discern the beginning of the turning of the tide in the Lower East Side through the actions of the groups housed within P.S. 64," Byrns said.
“It would be the ultimate irony and tragedy if the very agents of rebirth in this neighborhood were sacrificed by the new economic forces they helped to make possible.”
Gregg Singer may not be troubled much by irony. But if the building's history is any guide, that facade won't come down without a heap of protest. Stay tuned. . . .
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