Volume 75, Number 16 | September 07 - 13, 2005

Is Pace U. in the bed with Singer megadorm?

By Sarah Ferguson

New York City universities are always scrambling for student housing. But thus far area schools have been reluctant to get in bed with developer Gregg Singer and his plans to build a 19-story dorm at the site of the old P.S. 64 on E. Ninth St. for fear of arousing the wrath of an army of East Village opponents.

But at least one university official is willing to get on board: Michelle Perez, director of housing and residential life at Pace University, who is listed as one of the initial board of directors of University House Corporation, the nonprofit Singer created to manage his proposed dorm at 605 E. Ninth St, which was formerly home to the CHARAS/El Bohio community center.

Singer submitted the incorporation papers for U.H.C. to the Department of Buildings in May as part of his permit application to build the towering dorm, where he hopes to lease space to a “variety” of schools.

Perez insists she is serving on the board as an individual and says her affiliation with U.H.C. has nothing to do with Pace. “I’ve tried not to mix the two,” Perez told The Villager. “I don’t want to make it a conflict of interest.”

The other two directors named in U.H.C.’s certificate of incorporation are Barry M. Bernstein, Esq., the lawyer who handled the sale when Singer first purchased the five-story former elementary school building at auction back in 1998, and Robert Katz, a Park Ave. accountant.

Perez said she agreed to partner with Singer after he reached out to her, because she thought a multiuse dorm would be a “forward-thinking” and “innovative” project for the area. “I wanted to work with Singer to make sure the residential life side was done correctly and that the students who lived there would have all they needed in terms of ethical and social development,” she told The Villager.

She said she was not being paid to serve on the board and didn’t expect to share in the profits that Singer could rake in if the Buildings Department or city ever approves the plan. In order to meet D.O.B. standards, all of U.H.C.’s board members — including Perez — would have to represent licensed educational institutions leasing space there. They could not be acting as “individuals,” as Perez says she is doing now.

While Perez said Pace is always in need of “more beds,” she doubted the school, whose main campus is located across from City Hall Park, would be interested in renting on E. Ninth St. “That would be a little far for our students. We like them to be able to walk there,” she said.

Although Pace does lease dorm rooms at the old St. George Hotel, a former S.R.O. in Brooklyn Heights, it’s just a two-stop subway commute to Pace’s Downtown campus. By contrast, getting to and from 605 E. Ninth St. would require Pace students to take a cross-town bus or long hike on foot, followed by a longer subway ride.

Still, Perez didn’t exactly slam the door shut on the idea of a future Pace/Singer collaboration. “Every institution in the city has a waitlist easily 100 people deep,” she noted. “Done correctly, I’m sure it would be filled. New York City is always a hot commodity for students.”

While Pace officials confirmed that the school is not currently working with Singer, they did not rule it out. Spokesperson Bill Caldwell said the school was in the process of conducting a “comprehensive real estate assessment which includes student housing,” and referred all further questions to Newmark Realty. The Newmark realtor in charge of the assessment was out of the office and could not be reached for comment.

Perez said she was aware of the controversy surrounding the dorm when she signed on. But she feels fears about college students overwhelming the area and reducing its diversity are misplaced. “I think students would bring the diversity,” she said enthusiastically. “They come from so many places because of what they believe New York City can be. Whether it’s diversity in terms of ethnicity, sexual orientation or age, that kind of energy is what keeps New York City on the forefront as the capital of the world.”

Perez said the stereotypes of party-hardy student life were more at play on big campuses. “New York City is so rich in other things,” she said, that students don’t need to resort to “Animal House” behavior to entertain themselves.

A kosher dorm?

So far the only “school” willing to publicly align itself with Singer’s dorm scheme is the Lubavitcher-backed Manhattan Jewish Education Network — and that’s not even a school.

Described as a “division of the Chabad of Gramercy Park,” the group currently runs a licensed preschool center, after-school Hebrew classes, Kabala classes and other “educational programs” out of a storefront at 199 W. 19th St. in Chelsea.

Yet in a May 12 letter to the Department of Buildings, the group’s leader, Rabbi Naftali Rotenstreich, said he would be “extremely interested” in taking over all 19 floors of Singer’s proposed dorm in order to house a preschool, summer day camp for ages 2 to 9, an “activity center for children of special needs” and a dorm catering to Jewish students from “various school[s] in the neighborhood” — featuring a kosher deli, a Jewish library and Jewish exhibition center.

“We are presently at the stage of negotiations where we must culminate our deal with Mr. Singer or jeopardize our tremendous financial and morale[sic] investment,” Rotenstreich wrote to D.O.B.

Jennifer Givner, a D.O.B. spokesperson, said the city had already turned down the Chabad scheme because “they are not a licensed school or educational institution. The proposal that [Singer] submitted to us was for a dorm,” she noted, adding, “Last I checked, a preschool needs no dorm.”

In an interview with The Villager, Rotenstreich said he reached out to Singer last winter when he heard about an old school on E. Ninth St. that was zoned for community facility use.

“I was looking for a larger place to house a preschool for children with special needs, with an emphasis on Jewish students, but not exclusively,” he explained. “I thought the building would be perfect for that because of the large amount of outdoor space,” he said, pointing to the raised courtyard areas in the front and rear of the old P.S. 64.

When Singer explained the high-rise dorm scheme, Rotenstreich came up with the idea to combine his preschool and special-needs programs with a dorm that would provide housing for “both conventional students as well as observant Jews who want to live in a more Jewish environment.”

For instance, the dorm would have a “Sabbath elevator” that opens on every floor, so that students observing the Sabbath don’t have to press any buttons to get to their high-rise apartments. There would also be a Jewish study hall and holiday programs.

Rotenstreich conceded he was “not in position to put together a “$10 [million] to $15 million project” — the amount he estimated it would cost to build such a facility — and said he would need some heavyweight backers. He said he’d found “plenty of interest” among university officials, but said none of the “higher-ups” were willing to sign on publicly for fear of the community backlash.

When word leaked out last month of Chabad’s possible role in the dorm scheme, opponents unleashed a flood of angry e-mails and faxes to the rabbi.

The stridency of the opposition, Rotenstreich said, has “only solidified my position.”

“There was no substance, only emotion, it didn’t make any sense to me,” he said of the complaints he received about “colluding” with Singer’s designs to “destroy” the old CHARAS community center by razing the building to put up a dorm. “The notion that they’re going to take it back is unrealistic and not right,” Rotenstreich said of the old school. “Why should Singer give it back if he bought it? I’m not marrying the guy, but if the city decided to sell a piece of property, it’s sold. He didn’t do anything wrong. I personally feel that what’s happened to him is completely unjustified.

“All around Tompkins Square is being renovated and modernized and the rents have already come up. It’s not just the neighborhood; the economy is already gentrified over there,” the rabbi continued, responding to complaints that the proposed 19-story dorm is out of scale with the neighborhood. “There are already a number of tall condominium buildings. So to get a fix on this particular property and say we’re not letting it go anywhere is not right. It’s an obsession at this point.”

“The community is not what it was in the ’70s and ’80s. People just need to be a little more objective here,” he argued of those seeking to reclaim the building as CHARAS.

Rotenstreich insisted the dorm and preschool would be of service to the surrounding community, and said fears about Lubavitchers or students inundating the area were hysterical and unfounded. “We run a well-rounded curriculum that anyone could feel comfortable with,” he said of Chabad’s preschool program, adding, “As a matter of fact, the curriculum that my wife wrote is used by preschools across the country,” including many with no Jewish affiliation.

In fact, Rotenstreich said he already had plans to open a smaller Chabad center in the East Village this fall that would provide Hebrew classes to about 30 students. He said he hoped to use that as a staging ground for the larger school/dorm scheme on E. Ninth St.

Yet Rotenstreich insisted he was not looking to “do battle with the community” and said he would pursue any collaboration with Singer without having an “open house” to address the community’s concerns.

Rotenstreich said he was hardly a newcomer to the area, having served for many years as rabbi for the orthodox Community Synagogue on E. Sixth St., where he also ran a preschool and Hebrew school program. Rotenstreich said he resigned from the synagogue in 2002 because of “differences” with the synagogue’s leaders, who felt he was overly focused on raising money to expand his school programs, rather than growing the congregation.

Although he insists Chabad’s mission is to “create tolerance among all people,” there have been concerns raised about the slant of Rotenstreich’s teachings to his young students. Michael Rosen, a congregation member and founder of the East Village Community Coalition, said he and his wife were troubled after hearing their older son recount the rabbi’s “particularly vindictive” interpretation of the 10 plagues, which put an emphasis on the harm and pain it caused the Egyptians.

“It was a particularly vindictive interpretation verging on superstition,” Rosen said. “That’s not the God of compassion we want our kids to understand. When our kids complained about it, it was enough to make my wife and I roll our eyes and say this is not an appropriate place for our children.” They let their older son finish studying at the school for his barmitzvah — though he did so there on his own, without the teachers — but chose not to have their younger son continue in Rotenstreich’s class. Rosen is a leading critic of Singer’s dorm plan, but said they pulled their younger son out of the class long before they heard about the rabbi’s possible involvement with the project.

Rotenstreich dismissed the allegations as unfounded and politically motivated. “It shows how desperate they are they they’re willing to say anything to discredit me and vilify my school.”

“We teach nothing negative — it’s only positive,” he insisted. Though, he added, “I’m sure if he were committed to any of the 200 years of persecution and tortuous slave labor that the Jews were in Egypt, I’m sure he wouldn’t have been as compassionate as God was to the Egyptians.”

The charges were news to Jack Lebewohl, chairperson of the synagogue’s board, and Al Morgenthal, its treasurer, who both said they had not heard of any parents complaining about the nature of Rotenstreich’s teachings.

“I can’t tell you what was taught in his school, but there are different interpretations of how the plagues were carried out,” Lebewohl noted. He said Rotenstreich’s resignation from the synagogue had nothing to do with the rabbi’s philosophical leanings, and said he was surprised at the allegations. Lebewohl pointed out that expressing compassion for the Egyptians killed during the plagues is embedded in the very rituals of the Passover Seder, when wine is spilled on the tablecloth to show sorrow for their deaths. So he said he would be surprised if Rotenstreich’s school didn’t teach that.

Still Lebewohl, who also owns the Second Avenue Deli, questioned Rotenstreich’s desire to build a Jewish-oriented dorm on E. Ninth St. “I just don’t see the demand,” said Lebewohl, who has a son who attends New York University, which, he notes, already provides a “very nice” kosher kitchen for its students.

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