We almost mistook him for an extra on the set of Fred Durst’s new movie, The Education of Charlie Banks, which was filming in front of the old P.S. 64 on East 9th Street in the East Village on Monday. In fact, developer Gregg Singer was on the block to check on the demo crew he hired to begin hacking off the former school’s now landmarked facade.
“We’re going to start chopping it today,” Singer told the Voice, as workers began rehanging the scaffolding on the 10th Street side of the building.
Of course, Singer made the same threat a month ago. But on Tuesday morning, workers could be seen drilling into P.S. 64’s ornate dormer windows and terra cotta trim.
“It’s a shame. The city forced me to do it,” Singer told the Voice. Singer continues to insist he has “no choice” but to strip the facade so he can go to court and try to overturn last month’s landmarks designation and then proceed with his plan to put up a 19-story dorm at the site. Legally he can still demo the facade because of an alteration permit approved by the buildings department three years ago.
That permit expires in October, and Singer says he needs to get started now in order to have the century-old former elementary school denuded of its historic trimmings by then.
“My investors wanted me to start a month ago, but I put them off thinking we could work something out with the city,” Singer told the Voice. “I thought there was a chance the city was acting in good faith, but they’re full of shit.”
No matter that last week, a New York Supreme Court judge ruled the city was well within its rights when it denied Singer a permit to put up his dorm because he does not have any colleges on board to lease the place. Singer says he’ll appeal that ruling, too.
“It’s all politics. Eventually a school is going to step up and get on board,” Singer told the Voice. “Maybe we’ll have to wait until this mayor gets out of office, but somebody is going to approve this. I don’t care if it takes 10 years.”
Singer also blasted the mayor’s office and City Council rep Rosie Mendez for not working with him to come up with an alternative plan to develop the building, which is zoned for community facility use.
Since P.S. 64 was landmarked on June 20, Singer says he’s only had one sit-down with Mendez and Congresswoman Nydia Velazquez. “We discussed some ideas, but they never got back to us,” said Singer, who complained that Mendez blew off a second meeting scheduled for last week. “If they cared, they would say, Gregg, let’s work something out. But they won’t say what they want it to be. Why aren’t they making a deal with me?”
Mendez confirmed that Singer presented her and Velazquez with at least one alternative to the dorm, which she declined to discuss because of a confidentiality agreement Singer signed with the city. (Singer is currently suing Mayor Bloomberg and various city agencies for $100 million over his stymied dorm plan, which has made negotiations touchy. )
Mendez blamed her recent knee surgery and the congresswoman’s busy schedule in Washington for delaying further talks with Singer, but said they’d been working “as expeditiously as possible.”
“We told him we needed time to discuss his proposal between ourselves and also with the community,” said Mendez, who’s been on pain meds for the last two weeks.
“They’ve had eight years to come up with a plan,” counters Singer, who bought the former school at auction in 1998, when it was still home to the CHARAS/El Bohio community center. “How long am I supposed to wait? It can’t remain a vacant eyesore forever.”
Singer further accused the Mayor and Mendez of trying to run out the clock on his alteration permit. “They think they can string this along until my permit expires so they can force me to give up the building. But I’m not giving it back unless they pay market value for it. This is not Russia.”
So is there anything that might get him to call off the wrecking crew now? While Singer wouldn’t get specific about what he offered Mendez, on Monday he laid out two options (other than a dorm) that he’d consider to save P.S. 64’s face:
“Either we make it a homeless and drug treatment center with government funding to do it long-term, or they let me add a few floors and turn it into condos, and I’ll give the community some space at below-market rent.”
“I don’t really want residential because it pays the least money,” Singer added, noting that he could make more running the building as a shelter than he could selling it off as high-end condosâ€”if the city would even consider forgoing the community facility use restriction to allow such a scheme.
City Hall officials won’t say what, if anything, is on the table now, citing that confidentiality agreement. “It all comes down to the mayor,” Singer insisted. “If the mayor really cared about this community, we would have worked something out a long time ago. They have to put something in writing and get real.
“When I get something in writing, I’ll stop chopping,” he added.
Community advocates suggested a different equation. “If he chops it, then nobody’s going to talk to him,” countered Michael Rosen of the East Village Community Coalition, which fought to landmark P.S. 64. “Who in the city is going to give him a license to run it as a shelter now? I cannot imagine any college or university that is going to want to touch something that’s poxed. The community is never going to forget this. He’s only hurting himself.”
It all seemed like a bad movie to actor Jason Ritter (son of the late John Ritter), who plays a schoolyard bully in Durst’s indie flick. Glancing up at P.S. 64’s dilapidated but still elegant French Renaissance facade, Ritter seemed shocked its new owner would consider trashing it. “No way, really?” he asked, when told of the real life battle underway on East 9th Street. “Why would anyone do that?”