Workers were back hammering off the architectural detailing from P.S. 64 on East 9th Street Wednesday. But while there’s been much outrage voiced on the Web over owner Gregg Singer’s wanton destruction of this century-old former school’s now landmarked facade, there wasn’t a peep of protest on the street.
“Nobody cares,” responded Singer, when asked whether anyone from the community or City Hall had contacted him to intervene in the destruction.
“If they cared, they’d extend the permit,” Singer added, referring to an alteration permit granted by the buildings department in 2003, which allows him to strip off all the school’s ornate terra cotta trim.
That permit expires in October, and Singer says he needed to start chipping now in order to have the building completely denuded so he can challenge last month’s landmarks designation in court..
Singer claims he offered to call off the wrecking crew if the city extended the permit to allow more time for negotiations. “They wouldn’t do it,” says Singer. “They’re making me the bad guy, but the truth is, they don’t want anything to happen there.”
City officials were mum, citing a confidentiality agreement they signed with Singer in the wake of that $100 million lawsuit Singer filed against the Bloomberg Administration. (Singer is suing the city for rejecting his bid to put up a 19-story dorm at the site.)
But Michael Rosen of the East Village Community Coalition says the fact that city officials aren’t talking doesn’t surprise him.
“How are you going to negotiate with a man who’s got a jackhammer in his hand and a building that you love, and he keeps saying, Give me what I want or I’m going to hack off a bit more?” asks Rosen, who already lost a legal challenge seeking to block Singer from acting on his demo permit.
“It’s an even bigger tragedy because it’s pointless,” adds Rosen, who notes the courts have never before overturned a decision by the city to landmark a particular building. “He thinks if he demolishes the terra cotta, somehow that’s going to change things? It’s a pretty high-stakes bet. It’s a pretty silly move, I think.”
Rosen says the fiasco at P.S. 64 points to the need to reform the landmarks law to prevent owners from acting on preexisting permits to alter or destroy properties once they’ve been designated.
Yet in the end Rosen says Singer might be doing the community a favor.
“That terra cotta is 100 years old, and there’s a good chance it would have had to be replaced anyway,” notes Rosen, who lives in a penthouse atop the adjacent Christodora House. “If we’re lucky enough to get the building back as a community center, he could be helping us out by doing that work now.
“We’ve documented it extensively, so all of that terra cotta can be refabricated,” Rosen continued, doing his best to put a postive spin on the situation.
If that’s the case, then more help is on the way. Singer says he dispatched only three workers this week to test how long it takes to strip one of the school’s ornately framed dormer windows. “As soon as we find out, we’re going to add more guys, so the work will go faster. We’re doing the 10th Street side first, then 9th Street.
“Ultimately, there’s going to be a brand new building there once we overturn the landmarking,” predicted Singer, referring to his 19-story dorm scheme. “No one calls. No one cares about this building. They wouldn’t rescind the community-use restriction to let me build residential. They won’t approve anything. I have nothing to lose.”
Rosen, however, foresees a different scenario: “My prediction is a year from now he’ll put the building up for sale. There’s no more good faith. Yeah, he can strip it, but after that, if he even wants to change a window, he has to go to the landmarks commission for approval, and he just rubbed their noses in everything they stand for.”
Community Board 3 chair David McWater was also defiant. “I refuse to let him hold this neighborhood or myself hostage by threatening to do it,” McWater wrote in an e-mail to the Voice. “So my statement to him would be knock yourself out, we’ll survive. But remember, payback is a bitch.”