Volume 74, Number 41 | February 16 - 22, 2005

All you need is love, love, love and a great community facility

By Lincoln Anderson

Asking Mayor Bloomberg to show some love for the East Village for Valentine’s Day, Councilmember Margarita Lopez and community residents rallied by the former P.S. 64 last Sunday afternoon, calling on the mayor to save the building and return it to the neighborhood as its most recent former use, a community and arts center.

They sang a version of “All You Need Is Love” featuring the words “community facility,” and signed a giant valentine to the mayor, writing messages on it encouraging him to hear their pleas.

Recalling the 1970s when the neighborhood was at a low point, District Leader Rosie Mendez, said, “We saved this community with our sweat and our love, which is why we are here to say, ‘Mr. Mayor, give us back our community center.’”

“Love gives. Love does not take,” said Lopez. “Love embraces. Love doesn’t reject. Love takes care of the one that is not capable of taking care of themselves. Love is the reason that this building exists.”

The once-abandoned, deteriorating school building was saved by a group of Puerto Rican reformed gang members, who squatted in it and converted it into CHARAS/El Bohio cultural and community center. But the building was auctioned in 1998 under the Giuliani administration and purchased by developer Gregg Singer, who plans to demolish its rear portion and construct a 19-story, 220-bed student dormitory.

Saying the building never should have been sold, David McWater, chairperson of Community Board 3, remarked, “About 140 years ago, Abraham Lincoln said, ‘You can’t escape history.’ One of the things I think you can’t escape is that CHARAS occupied this building for 20 years. This building wouldn’t even be here to save if it hadn’t been for CHARAS.”

So far the city’s Landmarks Preservation Commission has declined to calendar the building for a hearing on whether it could be designated an individual city landmark. Being calendared for landmark designation is the only thing that would stay the building’s partial demolition.

However, on a bright note for those who hope to save the old school, it was recently designated by the State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation as eligible for listing on the state and national register of historic places. Cathy Jimenez, a spokesperson for the department, said the 1906 school — designed by legendary schools architect C.B.J. Snyder — was designated eligible because it was “associated with events that made significant contributions to history and has distinctive characteristics.” Yip Harburg, lyricist of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” attended the old P.S. 64, which was a hotbed of social and artistic ferment in the neighborhood and a must campaign stop for the likes of Al Smith and Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

The process would be for the State Historic Preservation Office to first designate the building for the state register, then refer it to the National Park Service for listing on the national register. If the building is designated, then Singer would be unable to use state or federal funds, without the project first being reviewed by ShiPO. Yet, Jimenez said, if Singer uses private funds, the project doesn’t need a review, and he can even demolish the whole building if he likes.

Proponents of landmarking the building hope the eligibility designation will have some effect on L.P.C.

“The commission is committed to preserving the building,” said Diane Jackier, a Landmarks spokesperson — adding that means “the entire building,” and that this would be done either “through designation or another means.”

However, Jackier would not say if the commission plans to calendar the building.

Singer said he plans to develop the building with private money now. Asked the cost, he said “approximately $300 per sq. ft.” For an earlier design of the dorm, he had sought State Dormitory Authority Bonds, but both State Senator Martin Connor and Assemblymember Steve Sanders, deferring to Lopez, refused to draft the necessary legislation for the bonds.

Singer said the ShiPO designation doesn’t make him any more inclined to agree with landmarking the building. He said he’s still moving forward with the same design, by Beyer Blinder Belle, for the 19-story dorm.

Told that Lopez and the coalition working to save the building had asked on Sunday for him to “feel some love” and restore the building as a community center, he said: “It’s too bad they didn’t love the idea to have nonprofits to benefit the community or low-income housing for seniors or the free daycare center for the community.

`“We want to have daycare as part of the project but we made a condition that a licensed community-based nonprofit organization would have to run it. Margarita Lopez opposed [it]. The longer it takes to move this project forward the less freebies we can give.”

Asked for her response to Singer, Lopez said: “I am not in favor of housing in there — that needs to be a center for services for the community. Daycare center is O.K., I have no problems with that.”

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