Workers have installed a rung of scaffolding on the 10th Street side of the old P.S. 64 school building in the East Village, in preparation for stripping its now landmarked facade.
Owner Gregg Singer says he now has “no choice” but to lop off the historic terra cotta trim in order to challenge last week’s landmarks designation in court. Legally, he can strip the facade using an alteration permit approved by the city’s buildings department three years ago.
But if Singer chips off so much as a single brick, he could be blowing more than $20 million in tax breaks available to him through a federal program created to help preserve old buildings.
The potential savings from these tax breaks put a new spin on Singer’s claim that the city robbed him of some $36 million worth of air rights when it landmarked the five-story former elementary school.
Under the Federal Historic Preservation Tax Incentive Program, Singer could qualify for tax deductions equal to the fair market value of those air rights plus any loss in value incurred for having to keep the facade as is.
In addition, Singer could get a 20 percent tax credit on the cost of renovating the building.
The combined tax incentives don’t add up to the full $36 million that Singer claims he’s losing by not being able to put up a 19-story dorm at the site. But they’re nothing to sneeze at either.
“It’s a big number, it’s a substantial incentive,” says Dan Reardon of the National Architectural Trust, which works with private owners to help them voluntarily preserve and adapt historic buildings.
Reardon declined to specify how much the conservation easement could be worth, noting that it would be up to an independent appraiser to crunch the numbers. But using Singer’s own estimate of the value of his air rights, one observer factored the potential tax breaks at $22 million.
The incentives call into question Singer’s claim that he simply “can’t afford” to develop the old school building as is. If there’s money like that available to preserve P.S. 64, is it really worth gambling on an expensive court battle to overturn the landmarks designation—which is the only way he’d get to use those air rights anyway?
Reached on Monday, Singer said the potential value of the tax breaks was still “minimal” compared to the profits he might reap from his proposed dorm, which would house more than 800 students paying $1,100 a month each–a rate he says is comparable to what students pay at nearby NYU facilities.
The city has refused to grant Singer a permit for a dorm because he does not have any universities willing to partner with him. But Singer, who is still suing for the right to build it, insists that’s all “politics.”
“If the community understood it, they would say it’s an incredible thing,” Singer says of his dorm scheme, which he claims could generate $120 million in profit over the next 30 years–money he’s now offering to split between the affiliated universities and arts and service groups in the neighborhood.
Singer notes that the dorm would be roughly the same height as the neighboring Christodora House, an upscale condo on Avenue B whose residents led the charge to landmark P.S. 64. “It’s not blocking anyone’s views, it’s not offensive, it’s nothing,” Singer maintains.
Singer also says his current plan to temporarily remake P.S. 64 into a 400-bed homeless shelter is no joke, even though he’s calling it the Christotora Treatment Center.
Singer readily admits he took the name from the Christadora House, which he notes was built in 1928 as a settlement house to serve poor immigrants coming to the Lower East Side.
“We changed the ‘d’ to a ‘t’ so they wouldn’t sue us over the name,” he says.
Last week Singer papered the block with posters advertising this “Christotora” center, featuring a photo of a purported battered woman with lesions on her face, whom he described as a “bum.” A website for the center says it will provide drug treatment, needle exchange, counseling for the mentally ill, and housing for people with AIDS, “troubled youth,” domestic violence victims, and recent parolees.
Singer insists he’s sincere about providing these services, even though he has yet to line up any licensed groups to run such programs.
But if Singer is looking to stick it to the Chistodora residents, he might need a new plan. Michael Rosen, who lives in the penthouse of the Christodora House and fought harder than anyone to landmark P.S. 64, says he’d readily welcome a shelter there, having built numerous transitional housing facilities across the city, including a home for female ex-cons on the corner of 10th Street and Avenue B.
“Done right, I think it would be a tremendous service to the community,” says Rosen, who volunteers at the Trinity Lutheran soup kitchen directly across the street from the old P.S. 64. “A lot of people come there to eat and then don’t have anywhere to go,” Rosen points out.
City officials declined to speculate on whether Singer could run P.S. 64 as a flophouse on his own dime, without any licensed service providers. But on Monday, Singer told the Voice he might consider forgoing the dorm to make his Christotora center a permanent fixture if it could attract big not-for-profit groups with access to government funding.
“They can pay a good bit of money,” he notes.
But as with that dangling scaffolding, some neighbors suspect his Christotora scheme is a ploy to draw city and local residents into negotiating. Since the landmarking, Singer says he’s been waiting for community activists and Councilmember Rosie Mendez to approach him with a workable plan for developing the building. “If we change the use to something that makes sense and works financially, they’ll get some space. But what’s it going to be?” he demands. “Nobody comes up with any ideas. All they do is protest.”