Love It or Level It
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 Ricanrun 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 rightsthere's up to 120,000 square feet of developable space above the five-story building, he claimsSinger 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.
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.
When asked why he'd be willing to alienate the city and further enrage local residents by defacing the school in disregard of any landmark designation, Singer says, "They already hate me. So they hate me more. So? I have a fiduciary responsibility to my investors. I can't go broke. I think the community should wake up and work with me."
At the hearing, Singer seemed desperate to find a compromise with the city or community leaders.
"There are many ways to provide space [to the community] or preserve some of the decoration," announced his lawyer Jeffrey Glen, who was once a senior land-use attorney for the city. "We are ready to talk."
And ready to sue. At the same time he's angling for a way to preempt landmarking, Singer has also slapped the city with a $100 million lawsuit, accusing Mayor Bloomberg, the landmarks commission, the buildings department, and its oversight body, the Board of Standards and Appeals, of colluding to thwart his dorm plan. The suit was filed by Randy Mastro, Giuliani's former chief of staff, who helped oversee the sale of Charas.
Back in 1998, many saw the sale of Charas as a political hit on the progressive forces that mustered there. Mastro's staff rejected the financial plans Charas offered to keep the building off the auction block. And the City Council rep at the time, Antonio Pagan, who backed the sale, was a fierce opponent of Charas's leaders; later, he got a job in the Giuliani administration.
Mastro's suit on behalf of Singer accuses the mayor's office of "manipulating city agencies like marionettes" and claims that Bloomberg cut a "dirty political deal" by agreeing to block the dorm in exchange for endorsement by Pagan's successor, Councilwoman Margarita Lopez, who was closely allied with Charas.
The suit notes that Lopez, a gay liberal Latina who backed Democrat Fernando Ferrer in 2001, crossed party lines to endorse Republican Bloomberg on October 13, 2005, a week before the landmarks commission, comprising mayoral appointees, voted to set P.S. 64 for a hearing.
City attorney Gabriel Taussig calls Singer's claim of a quid pro quo between Lopez and Bloomberg simply "not true," adding, "The landmarks commission is an independent body who will decide this on the merits."
Lopez, who was given a plum position at the New York City Housing Authority after losing her bid to become Manhattan borough president, also vigorously denies any deal was cut. "It is ludicrous to even suggest that," she says. "Michael Bloomberg is the best mayor that this city has had since I've lived in the city." Lopez makes no apologies for doing all she could to block Singer's proposed dorm, which she says would do nothing to serve local residents.
Of course, any high-rise dorm would run into a storm of opposition in the East Village, where the locals are already up in arms about the steady incursions of New York University.
Yet Singer claims that City Hall initially welcomed the idea of a dormitory off Avenue B as a "marketing tool" for universities.
In his lawsuit, Singer says he worked with members of the landmarks commission and Deputy Mayor Dan Doctoroff's chief of staff to scale back the dorm tower from 27 stories to 19, while preserving the more ornate 9th Street side of the building. But the deal went south, the suit alleges, when Lopez asked Bloomberg to "stymie" the plan.
photo: Nicholas Burnham
Officials at Landmarks and City Hall concede they met with Singer to discuss his plans, but insist they never signed on to anything. "No one, either from Landmarks or City Hall, told him that they approved of his proposal to save the facade of the building, tear down the rest of the building, and build a tower dormitory," city attorney Virginia Waters said in an e-mail to the Voice. "He was specifically told by Landmarks that they did not approve of this proposal."
In fact, the buildings department rejected Singer's dorm plan in December 2004long before Lopez endorsed Bloombergprimarily because Singer has yet to find any legitimate schools or universities willing to sign a minimum 10-year lease in order to prove "institutional control" prior to construction.
Last October, the Board of Standards and Appeals upheld that decision, ruling the city could not allow an "on-spec" dorm. (Singer is trying to overturn the BSA's ruling in State Supreme Court.)
But the BSA ruled the same day the landmarks commission voted to schedule a hearing to consider granting P.S. 64 landmark status, and that timing, Singer claims, is no coincidence.
Given the shortage of student housing, plenty of schools, Singer insists, would have jumped at the chance to lease space in his dorm, especially since he says he was offering to let them share in the ample profits earned from student fees. His lawsuit names nine colleges and universities he alleges were dissuaded by Lopez and the mayor, including New York University, which the suit claims was specifically asked by City Hall "not to get involved."
"This is sheer fantasy," says NYU spokesperson John Beckman, who insists NYU has never been interested in partnering with Singer. "We've said no publicly in so many ways," Beckman says. "This is like Groundhog Day."
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 offering674-square-foot two-bedroom "suites" housing four students paying $1,100 eachwas 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."
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 Houseall 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, Queensthen 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.
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 therea 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 leasenot enough to justify the huge investment required to fix the building.
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 himamong 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 offerboth 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 schoolif 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 buildingregardless 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."
Members of EVCC are also mum when asked what the building should be. At one point a couple of its members explored creating a Fame-type performance high school there. But Charas allies attacked the notion of a private school as "elitist," and the not-for-profit group pitching the idea couldn't meet Singer's terms anyway.
"It's not the mission of the EVCC to figure out what to do with the building," says Michael Rosen. "This is about preserving the very fabric and soul of our community. The point of landmarking it is to rescue a part of our history. Even if [Singer] chooses to let it stand empty, it's important to stop the building from being destroyed. I hope it can be a community center again. But as long as there is a plaque on the wall that says this school was a portal to the immigrant community, that's what this battle is about."
Rosen is himself a former developer of the Red Square apartment complex on Houston Street. His reluctance to voice a plan for the building may be understandable given the accusations from both Singer and Charas activists that he and others are looking to develop the old P.S. 64 themselves.
"I have no interest in buying the building," Rosen says, "but I'm sure that if Mr. Singer wants to sell it, there are enough resources in this community to find a way to finance it."
photo: Nicholas Burnham
Even if it's preserved, old P.S. 64 may never be redeveloped as long as its defenders cling to nostalgia over Charas.
Charas should be celebrated for rescuing the building from the junkies who might have burned the place down after the city abandoned it, and for creating a hub where people could gather to make art and activism. Over the years, it helped nurture some prodigious talents, including Spike Lee, Luis Guzmán, Todd Haynes, and John Leguizamo. Numerous neighborhood not-for-profits were incubated in its cavernous classrooms.
Yes, there were many vital programs, including ESL and computer classes; Latin dance and martial arts; Recycle-a-Bike; artist studios; cheap meeting rooms for Little League, housing groups, and AA; and rehearsal space for scores of performance groups. But the top two floors were never occupied, and the bulk of the space was rented out intermittently. The place never reached anything near its potential.
That's partly because Charas's founders were former gang leaders turned community activists, not CFOs, and they took over the old school at a time when the neighborhood was still reeling from the city's fiscal crisis and the Koch administration's efforts to demolish abandoned properties. Charas turned asideuntil it was too lateoffers from not-for-profits to help anchor the building. Its leaders spent years applying and waiting for government funds for renovationsand won a fair share. But given all the backing it got (both Susan Sarandon and Richard Gere were "honorary" board members) it's fair to ask why the group didn't try sooner to buy the building itself.
Charas director Chino Garcia says the city kept the group on a month-to-month lease, with the expectation that the city would transfer the title to Charas once the property was fixed up.
Then along came Giuliani with his campaign to privatize city resources and his administration's "broken-window theory"the belief that broken windows and neighborhood "decay" lead to crime. And there was Charas, with no central heat, a leaky roof, and all those cracked windowpanes in the empty upper floors.
When Singer first bought the old school, he took a reporter up to the fifth floor to show all the dead pigeons, droppings, feathers, and detritus that had collected there, literally a foot high from wall to wall.
"You can't tell me this is a responsible owner," Singer charged at the time.
But Singer hasn't fixed those windows either. He has ripped out all the asbestos tiling on the floors and says he carted away 15 truckloads of garbage. But plenty more dead birds and droppings have accumulated because Singer never sealed the place from the elements.
Singer has also whitewashed the colorful murals that graced the entrance hall and ripped out all the wooden seats in the basement auditorium where FDR and Al Smith once campaigned, where Nuyoricans like Bimbo Rivas and Miguel Piñero recited poetry and plays, and where in 2001, the Fringe Festival found a home.
But you can still find fragments of what was: a blackboard scrawled with notations about Shakespeare; fat bubble letters that spell out "Youth at Work! Workshop"; and in the old boiler room, where the coal furnaces are still in place, a fanciful mural of a globe breaking free of its chains.
Singer hasn't tossed out everything. Downstairs he saved a couple of paintings left behind, including a haunting portrait of a young Rosario Dawson, who grew up in a squat in the neighborhood and took part in many Charas events.
Singer says he didn't know who it was or who painted it. He just didn't have the heart to throw it out, he says, because it was "so nice."
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