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Somewhere Over the Rainbow: Can Activists Reclaim a Dilapidated East Village Landmark From Ruin – Or From Its Creditors? 

Community groups, lobbyists, lawyers, a private equity behemoth, and thrill-seeking kids all have a stake in P.S. 64's endless real-estate nightmare. 

by

A group of young teens were shrieking as they emerged from the old P.S. 64 school building in the East Village one recent November evening. They said they’d just seen a “ghost” on the top floor of the vacant property.

The five-story, 135,000-square-foot, turn-of-the-century building certainly looks like a place that might harbor spirits. It has sat empty for the past two decades, thanks to one of the most protracted real estate battles in the history of New York City. 

In 1998, former mayor Rudy Guiliani put the building up for auction—even though it had been occupied for 20 years by CHARAS/El Bohio, a Puerto Rican–led community center. The school was purchased by developer Gregg Singer, who has sought since 2003 to convert it into a for-profit dormitory for local universities. But he’s been stymied by the dogged opposition of CHARAS supporters—including local politicians and a wealthy hedge funder who lives in a penthouse next door—who want the building restored as a community center. 

Singer has sued the city numerous times in state and federal courts in his efforts to get the dorm conversion approved. Although one of his federal cases was dismissed this week after Singer missed the filing date for his appeal, he is still suing the city in the Appellate Division of the New York State Supreme Court, where he is seeking $330 million in damages based on the building’s potential value and the profits he might have made from the dorm, which he claims would have been a windfall for the community.

Meanwhile, the property is in foreclosure. Somehow Singer, who purchased the school for a scant $3.15 million, is now in the hole for more than $90 million—enough that his creditor, Madison Realty Capital, appears poised to seize control of the decaying property.  

Of course, the kids knew nothing of this real estate fiasco the night we found them sneaking into the old school. Two weeks prior, one of their friends had used a power drill to break the flimsy chain barring one of the doors on the back side of P.S. 64, at East 10th Street and Avenue B. When the teen stepped inside, he fell through the rotting floorboards and dropped six feet into a pile of debris and rusted nails (he’s OK). 

“I’m a skater, so I first heard about it from these guys in Brooklyn,” offered Noah, a 9th grader from Queens. “They said, yo, you want to go check out this abandoned school?” Noah explained that the first time he visited P.S. 64, he climbed the gate on the 9th Street side and got into the front courtyard, but the entrance doors were locked. Then he and a friend returned and scaled the sidewalk bridge on the 10th Street side to get to the raised courtyard in the rear. It took him several visits, watching older kids shimmy up a pole to get to one of the cracked windows on the third floor, before he mustered the courage to go up and climb inside. Since then he’s been leading his friends on pilgrimages to the old school, which offers soaring views of the Empire State Building from its upper floors. 

 

The city abandoned the school in 1977, after lead paint was discovered in the poorly heated building. Junkies and thieves quickly moved in and stripped away the copper plumbing and wiring.

 

In fact, this huge empty building in the middle of one of Manhattan’s priciest neighborhoods has become a must-see destination for urban explorers, attracting teens and 20-somethings from across the city, who come to bomb the brick walls with graffiti or post TikTok videos. Over the past year, there have been illicit parties and even a September rave that drew nearly 100 people to the completely unsecured roof, according to a participant. The renegade organizers wheeled in generators and a sound system through another pried-open entrance, on East 10th Street, that leads to the cavernous first floor. 

There have also been numerous televised sweeps of homeless people camping out under the unlit sidewalk bridge on the East 9th Street side of the building, an area dubbed “anarchy row” by its steadfast occupants. Last year, the fire department was called to extinguish a small fire on the second floor, most likely set by squatters seeking to keep warm inside the stripped-down building. You’d never know that this dilapidated school—with its broken windows covered by threadbare tarps flapping in the wind—has been appraised at $126 million, as is. 

None of the kids the Voice spoke to were aware of the history of the building, or why it had been left to rot for so long. “I feel like they should renovate it and make a rec center with a water pool and a basketball gym,” said Jose, from the Bronx.

The saga of P.S. 64 will probably go down as one of the worst real estate deals in New York City history. (It also illustrates the rather farcical nature of the New York market itself.) Master schools architect C.B.J. Snyder designed the French-Renaissance Revival building in 1904 to inspire the immigrant children crowding into the neighborhood. Its H-shaped layout and raised courtyards were meant to uplift the masses, with open-air theater performances and a 350-seat auditorium that offered a stage to everyone from President Franklin Roosevelt to Governor Al Smith and Mayor Jimmy Walker. Oscar-winning director Joseph Mankiewicz and Yip Harburg, who wrote the lyrics for all of the songs in The Wizard of Oz, attended school there. 

But the city abandoned the school in 1977, after lead paint was discovered in the poorly heated building. Junkies and thieves quickly moved in and stripped away the copper plumbing and wiring. In 1979, a citywide group called Interfaith Adopt-a-Building got a grant from the feds to do a job-training program, and secured a lease from the city to teach construction skills there. 

They were joined at the time by the young Puerto Rican activists of CHARAS, many of them former gang members, who had been working with social mavericks such as architect Buckminster Fuller and artist Gordan Matta Clark to reclaim the bombed-out landscape of Loisaida. (CHARAS is an acronym of the six founders’ first initials). 

CHARAS members assumed the task of clearing out and overseeing renovations of the building, and in 1985 took over the $874/month lease with the city (they did not “squat” P.S. 64, as some have claimed). For 20 years, the group provided space to artists and community groups, offering ESL classes, bike repair workshops, AA meetings, independent film screenings (a young Spike Lee showed his first film there), and performances by up-and-comers such as Luis Guzmán, John Leguizamo, and Bimbo Rivas, the poet who coined the term “Loisaida.”

But despite outcry from elected officials and scores of CHARAS fans (including actors Susan Sarandon and Richard Gere), former mayor Rudolph Giuliani put the building up for sale. (After protesters released live crickets to disrupt the event, many bidders fled. Singer, who bid anonymously, had to be escorted from the building by police. He thought he scored a bargain.) 

Following a three-year court fight, Singer evicted CHARAS, in 2001, and then began pitching the property to arts and educational groups and senior centers—even a for-profit youth hostel and homeless/drug treatment center. (The school is zoned for “community facility use,” and cannot be converted to regular residential housing or condos without a variance.)

But would-be renters were put off by CHARAS protesters, who staged fax jams and at one point even tossed dog poop at the not-for-profit leaders who came to tour the building. Some groups said they were dissuaded by the protests, while others said that Singer was charging too much for the space, which was still full of asbestos tiles and needed a massive upgrade. 

 

Mayor Adams has yet to weigh in on what he thinks should happen to the property, and probably won’t, thanks to all the lawsuits flying around.

 

In 2003, Singer floated the idea of razing the whole building and putting up a 27-story dorm for area universities. After meeting with members of the Landmarks Preservation Commission, Singer submitted a revised plan to preserve the more ornate 9th Street half of the school and erect a 19-story dorm off the back. But that high-rise scheme was put in check when activists and preservationists—including the penthouse owners of the swanky Christodora House condominiums, next door—convinced the Bloomberg Administration to landmark the old P.S. 64, in 2006. This meant that Singer could only build a dorm within the existing five floors of the building. 

Singer did his best to preempt the landmarking—at one point hiring workers to jackhammer off the limestone and terra cotta detail on the 10th Street side in order to “scalp” its historical appeal. (“Scalp” was the term used by an architectural historian who Singer hired to testify during a 2006 public hearing.)

It’s been pretty much a legal shitshow since then. In 2006, Singer sued the city and former mayor Mike Bloomberg for $100 million, hiring Giuliani’s former deputy mayor Randy Mastro—the man who put CHARAS on the chopping block in the first place—as his attorney. In court, Singer argued that the landmarking had been approved as a quid pro quo by Bloomberg to gain the endorsement of then-councilmember Margarita Lopez, who cut her teeth as a community organizer at CHARAS.

Although that suit and at least four others against the city failed, Singer nevertheless attracted interest in his various dorm schemes from area schools, including Pace University, Cooper Union, the Joffrey Ballet School, Adelphi University, and CUNY. In 2016, Adelphi signed a 10-year lease for two floors and was ready to pay $373,500 a year, before pulling out a year later because Singer could not get the Department of Buildings to sign off on the dorm conversion. DOB officials were apparently ready to approve the Adelphi lease in the summer of 2016, but then held off after former councilmember Rosie Mendez and others complained that Singer’s leasing plan did not meet the criteria required under the city’s so-called “dorm rule,” which mandates a 10-year “institutional nexus” with an accredited school. The dorm rule was passed in 2005, inspired largely by the need to regulate “on spec” dorms such as the one Singer has proposed. 

The city maintains that it ultimately rejected Adelphi’s lease because the contract only committed the university to renting 20 beds a year, while giving Singer the option to rent out the remaining 176 spaces on its assigned two floors. The city has said it has the right to require private owners to show a sufficient leasing arrangement with qualified schools, in order to prevent dorm buildings from being illegally converted to residential apartments. (The city also complained that Adelphi’s Varick Street campus is listed as an “adult trade school” rather than as a college or university.)

Singer claims that the city’s enforcement of this dorm rule is just a bureaucratic smokescreen. He blames former mayor Bill de Blasio for squashing the Adelphi deal by pledging, at a 2017 town hall, to find a way for the city to “re-acquire” the old school for the community. That promise, which de Blasio repeated in 2018 but never actually acted on, was apparently enough to scare away Adelphi while giving Singer ammunition to sue the city yet again.

In his current suit, filed in October 2020 and now on appeal, Singer accuses de Blasio, local hedge funder Aaron Sosnick, and the two lobbying firms that Sosnick hired of conspiring to stall the DOB’s approval for the Adelphi lease, thereby causing him to default on the $44 million bridge loan he took out in 2016 to finance the dorm renovation. Singer cites an email that Paul Wolf, a trustee for Sosnick’s charity La Vida Feliz Foundation, sent to city planning commissioner Carl Weisbrod on January 10, 2017,  in which Wolf offered to purchase the school building on behalf of an unnamed charitable entity for “in excess of $50 million”—with the aim of restoring it as a community center. 

“I am reaching out to you to let the City know there is a real option out there for Gregg [Singer] to exit the building and make a lot of money (so he can’t claim he is being harmed), and hopefully support the City’s effort to stop his latest scheme,” Wolf wrote in his email to Weisbrod. Wolf also reached out to Singer’s lender, Madison Realty Capital, to let them know that an offer was on the table. 

Singer claims that the offer, along with de Blasio’s public pledges to reclaim the school, caused Adelphi to back out of its lease at P.S. 64 and prompted Madison Realty Capital to initiate foreclosure proceedings. Forcing him into foreclosure, Singer claims, was a gambit to lower the purchase price—whether Sosnick buys the school, or the building gets repossessed by the city via eminent domain. (Neither Sosnick nor his attorney responded to requests for comment.)

Sosnick owns a penthouse at the Christadora House and is president of the East Village Community Coalition, which is also named in the suit. Sosnick was also recently outed as the anonymous benefactor who bought the Boys Club on Avenue A for $32 million—in an apparent bid to prevent that community rec center from getting razed for condos. “The goal is to keep this as a community facility,” maintained Wolf, who also brokered this anonymous purchase, speaking to Crain’s New York, in 2019. “The intent is to sell it to a nonprofit at a lower price than the purchase price.”

That didn’t go over well with Singer, who had himself pitched the idea of buying the Boys Club to preserve it as a community center—in the apparent hope that the city might then allow his dorm plan for P.S. 64 to proceed. (Singer is also suing Wolf, who declined to comment for this story.) 

Singer’s legal appeal, which is currently slated to be heard in February, is a real Hail Mary. Unlike previous judges, Supreme Court Justice Andrew Borrok found some credence in Singer’s argument that the city and Sosnick engaged in “tortious interference” to undermine Singer’s dorm plan, writing that “no court to date has addressed the merits of Mr. Singer’s claims.” The case is currently in discovery, meaning the city has to provide Singer with all the unredacted emails showing the internal deliberations and lobbying that went on in the course of denying Singer’s lease with Adelphi. Sosnick was deposed this week, and the two sides are currently fighting over when former mayor de Blasio will be deposed. 

The city calls Singer’s appeal (which runs to 747 pages with exhibits) a rehash of old claims. “Courts have dismissed previous lawsuits Mr. Singer has filed regarding this project, ruling the cases had no legal merit. We believe the same for Mr. Singer’s current claims—they have no merit,” city attorney Nicholas Paolucci wrote in an email to the Voice on Thursday.

Yet the years of litigation have taken their toll. This past January, a court ruled that Madison Realty Capital, a $10 billion global private equity firm, can foreclose on the property. Although Singer is fighting that too, he appears to be running out of money. Singer now owes Madison nearly $90 million in interest and principal, along with late fees and interest charges of $30,000 per day, which started accruing as of the January 20 court judgment, according to a report compiled by a court-appointed referee.  

That’s a preposterous sum when you consider what Singer first paid for the school. (It probably didn’t help that Singer had been paying himself $30,000 a month to “manage” the property. Now Singer’s own family members have reportedly stopped speaking to him, because he still owes them money, too.)

Singer’s attorneys and Madison Realty Capital did not respond to numerous calls and emails seeking clarification on the current ownership status of the building or their intentions for it. Both sides were supposed to appear in court in June, but the meeting was postponed, so the fate of this old school is still in limbo.

And as the debt mounts, and the lawsuits churn, the elements—and people—keep getting into the building.

Technically, no one has been allowed to step inside P.S. 64 since February 2019, when the DOB issued a vacate order after neighbors reported bricks and debris falling from the roof and upper floors. 
A large crack was spotted on the northeast wall, prompting the inspectors to briefly evacuate several neighboring buildings. Singer was ordered to restore fireproofing removed from the interior beams and to repair the cracks in the facade, which was starting to be “detached” from the walls, according to violations posted on the DOB website. The DOB stated in an email to the Voice that the “emergency facade stabilization work was performed to remediate the immediate collapse hazard.” Yet there are no publicly available records of the emergency work performed, and the violations related to this incident are still listed as “open.” 

Whether or not that work was properly completed, on March 30, 2020, Singer was issued a $25,000 fine for a Class 1 “aggravated offense”  for failing to maintain building “walls and appurtenances”—including the exposed and loose brick on the 10th Street facade. A hearing on that penalty is scheduled for next February. 

Singer has blamed the Department of Buildings for preventing him from fixing the building due to the Stop Work Order put in place in 2015, when the city revoked the permit for his dorm scheme. “How can I fix the building if they won’t give me a building permit?” he railed to this reporter in 2019. Singer has also repeatedly been ordered to “seal” or “brick up” the school to prevent unauthorized entry and to repair the heaved-up sidewalks and unlit sidewalk bridges. Most of those violations are still open or have been dismissed, even though Singer never really fixed those problems. In fact, many of the 213 complaints reported to 311 have been dismissed, including numerous complaints about unsafe conditions, children accessing the building, and people living inside it.

This past October, a neighboring property owner called 311 to report on glass from the school’s broken windows falling into her backyard: “12-inch square pieces of glass are falling from this vacant building into my backyard, which is a danger to me and my tenants. This happens almost every day. I have reported this issue before and am reporting it again because it is still happening.” The inspector who followed up reported that the building was sealed and that there was “no unsafe condition to adjacent building or public safety.” 

Yet despite these alarming conditions—or the fact that there is water pooling in the basement from the leaking roof—the city’s Landmark Preservation Commission has never actually fined Singer for his failure to maintain P.S. 64. A spokesperson for the LPC told the Voice that they met with Singer and his engineer back in 2019 to “develop a plan for necessary repairs, which have been addressed. He addressed leaks that were letting water into the building,” continuing, “While LPC has also received complaints about kids accessing the roof, that is not something we regulate, but we referred to the local precinct, and DOB was regularly inspecting to make sure it remains sealed.”

Last month, the Voice sent the mayor’s office photos of the kids milling around the busted-out 10th Street entrance of P.S. 64, which opens to a basement vault that’s about a six-foot drop from street level. According to City Hall, Singer sent someone over to seal the building the next day. “We are aware of the complaints against the privately owned property at 605 East 9th Street, and city agencies are taking action to ensure the owner complies with all local laws,” a spokesperson at the mayor’s office said in response.  

Sandra Mercado, aka Sin, who’s lived across the street from P.S. 64 for 40 years and watches over the block, says it was a super who works for another building on 10th Street who bolted the doors shut. He was helped by a local photographer, who volunteered his time because he’s worried about kids getting inside. “The community is so concerned about these children going in here and getting injured that they took it upon themselves to seal it for themselves,” says Sin.

The deteriorating conditions have prompted others in the community to step up the fight to reclaim P.S. 64—and to make sure Singer and/or his creditors can’t pursue a campaign of “demolition by neglect.”

“We’re worried about arson, it’s the oldest developer’s trick in the book,” says Frank Morales, a retired Episcopalian priest and longtime squatter who lives down the block in one of the former squats the city legalized in 2002. Morales says he felt compelled to do something about the state of P.S. 64 when he found one of the 10th Street entrance doors pried off its hinges, in September. He and his allies formed a new group, called the “Guardians of Loisaida,” and are now threatening to squat the building if the Adams administration does not intervene. They’re calling P.S. 64 the “Somewhere Over the Rainbow Building.” 

Last month, the Guardians held a rally outside the midtown offices of Madison Realty Capital. “We want to figure out a way for the former P.S. 64 to be revitalized into a new community center that could be the jewel of the neighborhood, and for the whole city, really,” says Morales. “Any other project they try to do here, though well-meaning, does not meet the historical value and meaning of what CHARAS was as a multi-ethnic and multi-generational community center,” he maintains. (Morales grew up in the projects off Avenue D.)

 

“I mean, this was a thriving Puerto Rican–led community and cultural space. It could be artists’ housing, a cultural space—it could be so many things. The needs here are so great.”

 

The Guardians also wheatpasted signs on the walls of the old school, including an endearing mockup of the Uncle Sam recruitment poster featuring the face of CHARAS co-founder Chino Garcia. That didn’t go down well with the board members of the still extant CHARAS Inc., who didn’t appreciate the Guardians using Chino’s image or encroaching on their turf. “We hope there is an understanding that at this time of delicate negotiation regarding Old PS 64/ElBohio, we have to be mindful that there may be harm, intentional or unintentional which may arise,” wrote CHARAS board member Herman Hewitt, a longtime housing advocate and Community Board 3 member who was a director for Adopt-a-Building when that group helped take over P.S. 64 with CHARAS. 

The Guardians also picketed briefly outside Corcoran, the upscale brokerage that Singer recently hired to market the old school for an undisclosed price. On its website, Corcoran pitches P.S. 64 as a chance opportunity for area schools and medical groups to participate in the “redevelopment and historic restoration of this century-old landmark,” which it says could be “transformed into a variety of modern, amenity-rich opportunities,” such as dorms, a nursing home, or an assisted living center.

Mayor Adams has yet to weigh in on what he thinks should happen to the property, and probably won’t, thanks to all the lawsuits flying around. Local council member Carlina Rivera, who up until this week was also being sued by Singer, says it’s now past time for the city to act. 

“The previous administration made a promise they couldn’t keep,” Rivera says of de Blasio’s pledge to reclaim the building. “So we’ve asked Mayor Adams to look into this situation and really examine what it would take to get it back for the community. We know that it might be expensive, but we really feel it is worth the investment, especially when you consider all the needs of this city, and also this building’s history and its potential.” Rivera then notes, “I mean, this was a thriving Puerto Rican-led community and cultural space. It could be artists’ housing, a cultural space—it could be so many things. The needs here are so great.”

At this stage, the community is no longer waiting for the politicians and lawyers to give them the go-ahead. Instead, a new wave of grassroots activism seems to be taking root along P.S. 64’s decrepit sidewalks. Last month, neighborhood activists and artists banded together to scrape the loose paint and moldering posters off the 10th Street side of the school in order to create fresh murals there. The brightly colored paintings, which illustrate the history of CHARAS and its place in the Latino community, were painted by volunteers with the Thrive Collective, in partnership with Loisaida Inc. and Lower East Side CommUnity Concerns. 

David Soto, aka Daso, a local musician who opened the Piragua Art Space, across the street from P.S. 64, came up with the idea for the mural project when he moved to the block, last May. “It was just so dark and gloomy,” he tells the Voice. Soto says he was “raised up inside CHARAS”; his mother, Angie Hernandez (whose smiling face beams down from one mural panel), grew up with Chino Garcia as young immigrants and learned English together. She later taught bomba and plena dance workshops at CHARAS and elsewhere, preserving these folkloric dances for the community.  

Soto credits the “mentors” he found in Garcia, former district leader Armando Perez, and other CHARAS creators, who he says helped steer him away from gang life on the streets. “It’s not just about a building,” he says. “CHARAS is a movement with or without a building. It’s about sustaining our legacy here, a legacy of activism through art.”

Last month, Soto and other longtime supporters of CHARAS gathered at the All People’s Garden on East 3rd Street to celebrate the unveiling of a new mosaic of Chino Garcia created by Guatemalan artist Juan Carlos Pinto. A frail Garcia attended in a wheelchair, alongside his daughter and grandkids and a crowd of friends and supporters, including architect and city planner Ron Schiffman, of the Pratt Center for Community Development, who helped CHARAS get a foothold in the ’70s. Garcia reminisced about coming to the LES as a young child in the 1950s and playing in the streets and bombed-out tenements, whose front doors were never locked. “I realized that in order for things to work, we all have to participate,” he said of his early activism to reclaim the neighborhood after the city cut services to the area during the fiscal crisis. 

The crowd then migrated to East 10th Street to admire the new P.S. 64 murals, along with an exhibition at Piragua featuring Pinto’s collage portraits of “LES Icons” created out of Metrocards. Soto says he’s been inviting the kids he meets trying to break into the old school to get involved in painting murals—along with the broader fight over P.S. 64. 

The kids, however, might have other plans.

On the day that Singer supposedly bolted shut the 10th Street entrance, the Voice received a text message from one of the teens we’d met previously. He said he had scaled the plywood fence on 9th Street and was looking for a way inside. Later, he texted back to say that he and his friends had managed to find another way in.

Asked what keeps him coming back, he said, “I just like it. It’s old and it’s vintage.”  ❖

∼ ∼ ∼

• On Friday, December 16, the Guardians of Loisaida are hosting a “holiday dinner”—with free joints to boost the cheer—starting at 5:30 p.m., outside the 9th Street entrance to P.S. 64, at 605 East 9th Street. 

Then, on Saturday, December 17, at noon, members of the SOCCC-64 coalition and local elected officials will rally outside P.S. 64 to mark the 21st anniversary of the eviction of CHARAS/El Bohio. They will demand, once again, that the city return P.S. 64 to “the community.” 

Sarah Ferguson published her first story for the Village Voice in August 1988, about the Tompkins Square riot. She was a senior editor of High Times and has written for numerous publications, including EsquireMother JonesThe NationVibe, and Details. She lives in the East Village and is a member of La Plaza Cultural de Armando Perez, a publically owned community garden that was founded by CHARAS members in 1976 and later named after CHARAS founder Armando Perez.  The garden has no formal relationship with Charas, Inc.

 

 

 

 

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