Volume 75, Number 15 | Aug. 31 - Sep 06, 2005

Villager photo by Clayton Patterson

A young dance troupe performed at a press conference last Thursday calling for a community center at the old P.S. 64 on E. Ninth St. They said there is no place for them to practice in the neighborhood and that without the center, they’ll just be “sitting in the park.”

HOWLing for a 9th St. community/ arts center

By Sarah Ferguson

They called it a “Kid Slam” but it was more like a Bloomberg slam.

During Saturday’s HOWL! Festival, local pols lined up with local kids to demand that the mayor stop “ignoring the East Village” and support community efforts to landmark the old P.S. 64 school on E. Ninth St., which developer Gregg Singer wants to demolish in order to put up a 19-story dorm.

The performance “slam” was organized to showcase the talents of Alphabet City’s youth while highlighting the need for a new community center at P.S. 64 to replace the old CHARAS/El Bohio, which was lost when Singer bought the building at auction in 1998.

One by one, local kids stepped up on stage to “testify” as to how P.S. 64 could be put back to use to serve them. “My school shares a school with two other schools and it’s very crowded,” said 8-year-old Clara Maldonado. “Last year I had to go to the cafeteria and eat lunch at 10 in the morning, so my school needs a bigger space and maybe it could be CHARAS,” she said with a shy smile.

Sharice Vadon, who has coached kids from the projects to perform at the Apollo theater and with the Blue Man Group through her Sweet Sensations dance company, said she was desperate to find space for her students to rehearse. She said her enrollment recently dropped from 36 to six after she and several children were caught in the crossfire of a drug shootout while they were rehearsing outdoors in Campos Plaza at 12th St. and Avenue C.

“All I’m asking for is someone to provide a roof over my head,” Vadon pleaded, standing just a block away from the old P.S. 64, which has languished empty since Singer took possession of it in 2001.

While the building rots as Singer and his East Village opponents battle over the developer’s megadorm plan, Councilmember Margarita Lopez upped the ante a notch by calling on Bloomberg to use eminent domain to take it back.

“It is our school, it is our property, and we need to fight for it,” Lopez told the crowd, which had already been revved up by performance artist Reverend Billy and his Church of Stop Shopping Choir.

“If in Brooklyn they can use eminent domain to take away hundreds of people’s homes to build a stadium, why not use eminent domain here?” she demanded. “Why not? The concept for that is actually perfect. It’s about taking over something that would deeply service the community. How much more deep do you want?

“Everyone who knows the history of this building knows very clearly that when the Giuliani administration sold this building, it was an abuse of power,” Lopez added. “So I call on the mayor to exercise the power of eminent domain to preserve this building and give it back to who it belongs to. It belongs to the people,” she maintained.

State Senator Martin Connor echoed Lopez’s demand. “The mayor is going around the city using eminent domain to help corporate developers,” Connor told the HOWL! audience. “I’m calling on him to use eminent domain to reclaim this building for the people of New York who built it — and for this community, which is a perfectly legitimate use of eminent domain.”

Singer did not reply to requests for comment on what he thought about using eminent domain to take his building.

Connor also termed “nonsense” the Bloomberg administration’s claim that its hands are tied when it comes to landmarking P.S. 64. The mayor’s office insists it cannot “supercede” the role of the Landmarks Preservation Commission, which has been sitting on a proposal by the East Village Community Coalition to landmark the 100-year-old building since last April. A Landmarks spokesperson said E.V.C.C.’s request for evaluation is “still under review,” but the commission has thus far declined to calendar it for a hearing.

“If Bloomberg supported it, it would move it forward,” Connor said of the landmarking effort. “He appointed half that commission.”

Assemblymember Steve Sanders also took aim at Bloomberg during a press conference Thursday outside the Christodora House, a luxury condominium adjacent to P.S. 64, where E.V.C.C. is leasing an office.

“If a carousel on Coney Island was worth your time and effort to help save, then God knows this community and this building is worth at least as much as well,” Sanders said, making reference to the mayor’s decision last week to plunk down $2 million to buy the historic B&B Carousel on Surf Ave., which the owners were planning to dismantle and sell.

Saying the Giuliani administration had given Singer a “sweetheart deal” when it sold him the building for $3.15 million, Sanders said either landmarking it or using eminent domain to buy it back would be a “good idea” in order to stop Singer from tearing it down.

“Bloomberg did not cause this problem,” Sanders said of the standoff over P.S. 64. “But as mayor of New York he has a responsibility to solve it.”

City officials were dubious about the notion of resorting to eminent domain to reclaim the old school. “The use of eminent domain is limited by the U.S. Constitution,” noted Jordan Barowitz of the mayor’s press office. “It’s used very sparingly, and usually for some big thing, like when you build a subway or a street or some huge project for the community. It’s very unusual to use it for a particular piece of property. People have the right to own something and not have it taken back by the government, so the threshold is pretty high. I’m not an attorney, but I would imagine they would have a pretty tough time making a case for it.”

Even some of Singer’s most ardent opponents in the East Village questioned whether eminent domain was a good strategy. “It’s a horrible idea,” said videographer Clayton Patterson. “I think the last thing we need is the government taking over buildings. It’s a very un-American concept.”

While preservationists conceded an eminent domain claim would face a stiff legal challenge from Singer, they applauded the effort to ratchet up political pressure on the mayor.

“If the mayor wanted to save the building, I believe the Landmarks commission would probably take that recommendation under extreme consideration,” said Simeon Bankoff, executive director of the Historic Districts Council, one of several preservation groups that have backed E.V.C.C.’s proposal.

Indeed, while the mayor’s office insists it must wait for Landmarks to rule on the issue, that’s not what happened in the case of Bedell House in Staten Island, a historic family home from the mid-1800s that a developer was threatening to knock down. There, Bankoff notes, Bloomberg came out for landmarking even before Landmarks ruled on it.

Bloomberg was also out front in the battle to preserve the Plaza Hotel, whose grand ballroom and other interior public spaces were landmarked in July.

Yet one of the obstacles to preserving P.S. 64 is the fact that Singer has already been issued a so-called “Alt 2” permit by the Department of Buildings to demolish the ornate cornices and other cast-stone elements of the facade. Even if the city granted landmark status, that would not prevent Singer from acting on this preexisting demolition permit, which would remove significant historic details from the beaux-arts building, which was designed by famed architect C.B.J. Snyder.

According to Bankoff, the Landmarks commission is traditionally reluctant to get involved when there is already some kind of demolition permit in place.

But E.V.C.C.’s Roland Legiardi-Laura says Singer’s Alt-2 permit is far from a complete demolition permit and hence should be “way below that threshold.”

“Even if Singer does tear those things down, we have told the L.P.C. that we would restore to their former beauty all the facade elements, so we would still have a building that was as pretty and restored as before,” said Legiardi-Laura, who accused Singer of applying for the Alt 2 permit to preempt any preservation efforts.

Again, Singer did not reply to requests for comment.

Without landmark status, there is nothing to prevent Singer from moving to demolish the whole building — even if the city never grants him a permit to build a towering multischool dorm, which he has been trying to do for the last year and a half. On Saturday, as the kids were warming up their dance moves, workers could be seen carrying out interior doors and loading them into a dumpster. Singer has an active permit to remove asbestos in the building, and opponents fear that could be a prelude to tearing it down.

That’s why the cause to save the old P.S. 64 has taken on such urgency. “If our mayor wants to be the education mayor and the culture mayor, this is his opportunity to prove that, all wrapped up in one,” Legiardi-Laura told reporters at the press conference, before singing the virtues of P.S. 64, which was one of the first public schools to stage open-air theater, and where Franklin D. Roosevelt once gave an address.

Among its many famed alumni is Yip Harburg, who wrote “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.” Spike Lee screened his first film in the school’s auditorium after it had been taken over by CHARAS.

Looking to show what they could do with a restored P.S. 64, 10-year-old Julisa Valencia and a group of young girls called the “Eight Angels” staged their own booty-rocking routine to Ciara’s hit, “1, 2 Step.”

“We have hardly no place to practice,” complained Valencia, who recently appeared in a J. Lo video.

She was followed by Gadriel Rivera, also 10, who said he wanted a place take guitar lessons. “My school has a really small gym,” he said of P.S. 19 on First Ave. “We need more space for games and activities.”

“If we don’t have this building, we’ll just be doing what we do now, which is sitting in the park all day doing nothing,” added Miranda Acosta, 12, who was brave enough to sing “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” during Thursday’s press conference. “We don’t need a building that’s doing nothing for the community,” she said gesturing to the dilapidated school, whose courtyard is now boarded up with plywood. “This is the only place left where there can be a community center down here, so we need it back.”

But while the community is fairly unanimous in opposing Singer’s dorm concept, not all are enamored with the idea of installing a school there.

As the kids were slamming for P.S. 64, Susan Howard of the original Committee to Save CHARAS passed out leaflets accusing E.V.C.C. of reaching out to Wingspan Arts Center, a private arts group, to create an alternative performing-arts high school there at the expense of local community groups.

Howard accused E.V.C.C. of pursuing an “elitist” plan for the old P.S. 64 and claimed tuition for such a school would be out of reach for most children on the Lower East Side. She and other CHARAS supporters believe the school should be restored as a cultural center for local arts and community groups, similar to what CHARAS used to run.

E.V.C.C. founding member Michael Rosen called Howard’s accusations baseless. He says his group has no specific “plan” for P.S. 64 and insists they are only acting to restore the building “to what the community wants.”

According to Legiardi-Laura, E.V.C.C. reached out to Wingspan last year when they heard the group had been in talks with Singer about creating an arts high school there, primarily as a “fact-finding mission — to know more about what Singer was proposing.”

“We’re not supporting Wingspan,” he insisted, adding, “They primarily sell services to schools. They didn’t really have a track record for developing this kind of building, and I don’t think they had a real vision for this community.”

Nevertheless, Legiardi-Laura said he personally thought an alternative “Fame”-type high school — either public or private — would be a great idea, as long as it remained accessible to local kids. Last year, Legiardi-Laura floated the idea of installing a school like that on one or more floors of P.S. 64, and setting up mentorship programs with local arts and community groups that would also lease space there.

“There are 2000 high school-aged children in this neighborhood who have to go out of this neighborhood to go to high school,” he said. “If the mayor wants more school space, it’s sitting here waiting for him to grab it.”

For her part, Councilmember Lopez says she has no problem with reclaiming P.S. 64 as both a school and a community center. “It can be a school for cultural development and a community center for the arts. I don’t see the contradiction,” she shrugged before adding, “But first we have to get it back.”

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