Drawing Blood Over CHARAS


Fans of preserving the former CHARAS building, on East 9th Street, won a round last week. Preservationists have been pushing the city’s Landmarks commission to protect the 102-year-old former public school. The owner, Gregg Singer, has been pushing a plan to tear part of it down so he develop a 19-story dormitory “for everybody,” he says–meaning he as yet has no takers for the project.

On Tuesday, Landmarks officials were set to vote on the matter. Any number of panelists had said they intended to landmark the property. But at the 11th hour, Singer’s lawyer wrangled a deal to postpone the vote until June 6, in return for a promise from Singer not to work on the building until after that meeting. Singer wouldn’t say how he intended to use the delay, only that he was following his lawyer’s advice in getting one.

An attorney for Landmarks wrote up an agreement while the rollicking hearing was going on. Commissioner Roberta Brandes Gratz called Tuesday’s meeting “the most extraordinary hearing” she’d experienced on the panel. Members of the East Village Community Coalition and other neighbors gave nearly three hours of testimony, much of it making reference to CHARAS/El Bohio, the 20-year-old community institution.

Other people talked about the building’s former role as a neighborhood school and arts center. Matthew Viggiano, chief of staff to State Senator Martin Connor, gave Landmarks what he said were 5,000 postcards signed by community residents in favor of landmarking the old P.S. 64. Viggiano said they weren’t mailed “because over 10,000 [postcards] were already sent in.” Several spoke of the building’s H-shape configuration, and how it brought needed sunlight and air to the Lower East Side immigrant kids it was built for. “Architecture is a reminder of our city’s social contract with its neighborhoods,” said an emotional Frederic Schwartz, architect of the new Staten Island Ferry terminal. The building “elevated education for the masses by the very nature of architecture and architectural design.”

Singer bought the building at auction from the city in 1998 for $3.15 million. If it gets landmarked now, he told the Voice, that would take away the value of what he bought. According to city regulations for so-called community-use facilities, Singer could tear down the existing building and construct something bigger. “We have 120,000 feet of right-to-build that would be lost,” Singer said. “And the city has to compensate us for that.”

Oh, yeah? Landmarks Commissioner Roberta Brandes Gratz seemed no ways ready to humor singer. With an eye toward the June 6 meeting, she concluded, “Our counsel has done whatever was necessary to draw the necessary blood.” —posted by Alexis Sottile