With a stroke of her pen last Friday, December 23, New York Supreme Court Justice Melissa Crane appears to have ended developer Gregg Singer’s two-decades-long campaign to convert a landmarked former school building in the East Village into an upscale college dorm.
Justice Crane ruled that Singer — who purchased the dilapidated, turn-of-the-century school near Tompkins Square Park in 1998 — has defaulted on the $44 million loan he took out in 2016 to finance his dorm conversion scheme.
Ownership of the building will now revert to Singer’s lender, Madison Realty Capital, a $10 billion private equity firm located on Madison Avenue in midtown Manhattan.
It’s a rather bizarre twist of fate for the old school, which has languished empty for the past 21 years, ever since Singer evicted CHARAS/El Bohio, the Puerto Rican–led community center that occupied the building in 1979, after the school was abandoned by the city.
Singer bought the building out from under CHARAS at a highly contested public auction, for $3.15 million. But his debts have ballooned wildly since that 1998 purchase. According to Crane’s ruling, Singer now owes Madison Realty Capital nearly $90 million on the property — including principal, interest, and penalties — and could be required to pay additional interest charges of $30,000 per day until Madison actually assumes title.
The building is to be auctioned within 90 days, unless the court approves an extension.
Neither Singer nor his various attorneys and representatives have responded to requests for comment on Crane’s decision, so it is not known whether Singer has any plans to appeal the foreclosure. But it appears that the developer — who has been fighting the city in court since 2005 over his various dorm plans — might finally have lost control. On December 19, the city took the unusual step of sending city contractors to seal up P.S. 64, at Singer’s expense. According to the Buildings Department, “the work is being performed under an Immediate Emergency Declaration (IED), and permits are not a prerequisite for the work to begin.”
Madison Realty Capital declined to comment on the foreclosure or on what plans it has for the building, which is zoned for “community facility use” and cannot be converted to condos or residential housing without a variance. (According to Singer, the property has been privately appraised at $126 million, as is.)
But on December 22, the lead attorney for Madison wrote to Justice Crane asking that she expedite the foreclosure proceedings, over concerns that the hazardous conditions cited in the city’s emergency declaration could diminish the value of its property.
“Unless the Plaintiff is able to take control of the Property and remedy the outstanding problems, the value of Plaintiff’s collateral could have a severe and negative impact,” Madison attorney Jerold Feuerstein asserted, referring to the worsening conditions at the school.
Supporters of CHARAS say they are “rejoicing” at the news that Singer is going to lose ownership of the building.
“After twenty-five long years, Greg[g] Singer has finally been forced to relinquish control of the beloved former P.S. 64/CHARAS-El Bohio Community Center,” wrote Andrew Berman, executive director of Village Preservation, in a press statement. Village Preservation is one of several groups that campaigned to landmark P.S. 64 in 2006, in order to save the century-old Beaux Arts school and prevent Singer from erecting a 19-story dorm there. Village Preservation was also named in a federal lawsuit filed by Singer that accused Berman of illegally conspiring with elected officials, and with Aaron Sosnick, a local hedge funder who lives in a penthouse apartment next door to the school, to “stymie” his most recent dorm scheme. That suit was dismissed earlier this month, after Singer failed to submit his appeal papers before a court-imposed deadline.
In the press statement, Berman urged Mayor Eric Adams to “undo the final wrong” committed by former Mayor Rudy Giuliani when he put the building up for auction in 1998, and to take steps to “re-acquire” the old school for use as a community center, as former Mayor De Blasio pledged to do in 2017 and again in 2018. “This is a unique and fleeting opportunity, and Mayor Adams must seize it now,” said Berman.
City Hall did not respond to requests for comment on whether Adams or anyone in his administration has sought to broker a deal with Madison to prevent the 135,000-square-foot building from being auctioned off to the highest bidder.
The city’s decision to seal up the building came as a surprise to the area’s elected officials and community advocates, who have been pushing for the city to take action for at least a decade. The building has been under a full vacate order since February 2019, when a large crack was discovered on the 10th street facade, along with other hazardous conditions. But despite an order from the Landmarks Preservation Commission instructing the developer to repair the cracks and broken masonry and seal the building from trespassers and the elements, Singer continued to allow the property to deteriorate.
Meanwhile, the long-vacant school became a magnet for urban explorers and graffiti artists, as well as homeless people who camped beneath the unlit sidewalk bridges on the 9th and 10th street sides of the building. In March 2019, all seven elected officials for the area—including Congress members, the city comptroller, the borough president, and East Village council member Carlina Rivera — sent the city a letter demanding that the Buildings Department investigate whether Singer was pursuing a campaign of “demolition by neglect.” And on November 15 of this year, the Voice sent the mayor’s office photos of teenagers exiting one of the busted-out entrances to the old school, which opened to a six-foot drop into a pile of rotted wood and debris.
The Buildings Department declined to say if those photos, along with the feature story the Voice published in mid-December describing young teens climbing into the cracked windows on the third floor of the school, were finally enough to force the city’s hand.
Regardless of the city’s motives, community advocates were ecstatic. “It’s great news,” David Soto, owner of the Piragua gallery, located across the street from P.S. 64, on East 10th Street, tells the Voice. Last month, Soto and other community activists in the East Village recruited artists to paint new murals on the decrepit, tagged-up walls of P.S. 64; the colorful paintings celebrate the history of CHARAS and its place in Loisaida. The group also enlisted a local electrician to restore the lighting under the sidewalk bridge, which Singer had long neglected to do.
“Sealing the building gives us a great sense of relief, since it minimizes the concerns of unauthorized entry and possible arson,” says Soto, who grew up playing inside the old classrooms of P.S. 64 when it was occupied by CHARAS. “With this foreclosure ruling, we hope that those that have the power to do so will allow for our community to find the right partners to bring CHARAS back.”
Soto’s words were echoed by CHARAS co-founder Chino Garcia, who is currently living in a hospice downtown. “We are excited to finally have the opportunity to return the building to full community use, and are ready to work with Mayor Adams to restore this once vibrant community hub,” Garcia said in a press statement.
But exactly how a CHARAS-like community center might be restored to P.S. 64 is hard to say, given the tremendous debt that Singer leveraged on the building, and the cost to renovate a building left to rot for two decades.
Susan Howard, a board member of the still extant CHARAS, Inc., says her group met with representatives of the Adams administration over the summer, but no promises were made. “We don’t know what’s possible yet,’ Howard explains. “It’s all in play.”
Singer and his attorneys also declined to comment on how the foreclosure might impact their $330 million lawsuit against the city over the stymied dorm plan. The case is on appeal, and both sides are currently fighting over whether De Blasio will be deposed in February.
This past fall, members of a new group, called the “Guardians of Loisaida,” threatened to squat the building if the city did not intervene to save it from ruin. Kenneth Toglia, a former squatter and medical marijuana activist, says he and his fellow Guardians are now organizing a “grassroots committee to negotiate with the city and Madison for the return of the entire building to the community ASAP.”
“Everyone is in,” Toglia texted. “The return of the building to the community is a win/win/win situation for all involved.”
Everyone except Singer. ❖
Sarah Ferguson published her first story for the Village Voice in August 1988, about the Tompkins Square riot. She was a senior editor at High Times and has written for numerous publications, including Esquire, Mother Jones, The Nation, Vibe, and Details. She lives and works in the East Village.