Volume 75, Number 23 | Oct. 26 - Nov. 01, 2005

Villager photo by Clayton Patterson

Inside a model of the old P.S. 64, from left: Roland Legiardi-Lauria, Iris Quinones, Matt Viggiano, Father Julio Torres, Assemblymember Steve Sanders, Councilmember Margarita Lopez, Rosie Mendez, Amy Velez, Elizabeth Ruf-Maldonado, Miguel Maldonado.

Champagne toast and cheers for old P.S. 64 victory

By Lincoln Anderson

Two days after a decisive double victory in the ongoing fight to save the embattled old P.S. 64/former CHARAS/El Bohio, leaders of the effort gathered outside the East Ninth Street building to celebrate and get revved up for the final push to win the struggle.

On Oct. 18, the Board of Standards and Appeals rejected developer Gregg Singer’s appeal of the Department of Buildings’ ruling against his application for building permits to construct a 19-story, 222-unit university dormitory on the rear of the site of the old school building. The same day, the Landmarks Preservation Commission announced it had calendared the former public school for a designation hearing. Although Singer is expected to file suit against the city, by anyone’s estimate, the chances of defeating the dorm project and saving the existing building appear to be extremely strong now that the Bloomberg administration is lining up behind the initiative.

“This building is the center of our soul in our community,” said Councilmember Margarita Lopez, standing in front of a 4-foot-tall model of the old P.S. 64 at last Thursday’s press conference. “And people that don’t understand that are very sick people. Mayor Michael Bloomberg, you are just an angel. Without him this would not be happening. We will continue to fight for the building until the end.

“Letting this building go will be a crime against humanity. The buck stops here!” Lopez said. “We are going to landmark this building. We are going to make sure this building is going to be used for what it was intended to be — a community facility.”

Dormitories are allowed under the property’s deed restriction for community-facility use. But the Bloomberg administration has tightened up on granting permits for community facilities built on spec, and is now requiring developers to show that an educational institution has a clear connection to a particular project, something that Singer, so far, has not demonstrated convincingly.

The B.S.A. issued a strongly worded, 20-page decision supporting the earlier decisions of the Buildings Department that Singer needs to show proof of institutional control for any proposed dorm project.

Lopez said the push to block the dorm has set a precedent by closing a loophole in city zoning, under which developers had sought to exploit the community-facilities use zoning to build extra-large dorms only to turn them into residential apartment buildings.

Instead, she said, the building will someday again be filled with “music, dance, theater, poetry, teaching children.”

But first, she said the community “must turn out massively” at the as-yet-unscheduled Landmarks hearing.

Lopez will be term-limited out of office at the end of December, and so won’t be in the City Council to see the conclusion of the old P.S. 64 saga.

Addressing her comments to the community, Lopez said of the long fight and recent thrilling turn of events, “Thank you, from the bottom of my heart. It has been awesome.”

Similarly, Assemblymember Steve Sanders, who announced last Wednesday that he will retire from the State Legislature at the end of the year to join a lobbying firm, said he’ll do whatever he can in the next two months to help preserve the building.

“Who is it said you can’t fight City Hall — and win?” said Sanders. “This mayor, at least, responds to correct arguments. If it is the last thing we do in office,” Sanders said of himself and Lopez, “it is that on Jan. 1 we are well on our way to making sure that the dream is realized — to protect this building.”

It’s expected the Landmarks hearing could happen as soon as December and that the building could be designated, if not as soon as that month, by January or February. If Singer files suit, by the time the litigation is resolved, new zoning for the East Village could be in place capping new construction in the neighborhood at 70 feet, about the height of the existing old school building.

David McWater, chairperson of Community Board 3, admitted that the dream of saving the building seemed an incredible long shot back in February when they held a Valentine’s Day press conference asking the mayor to “be a sweetheart” and return the building to the community.

“I thought I was going to get an empty box of chocolates. When I first heard it, I was speechless,” he said of the possibility that the building might now be landmarked. “I think when we talk about the mayor and Margarita, we shouldn’t forget Rudy and Pagan,” he added, referring to former Mayor Giuliani and former Councilmember Antonio Pagan, who both backed the effort to auction the former school building in 1998.

“I think we are going to win this one,” McWater said. “I think as an issue and a landmark this has ripened — this building as a symbol of what this neighborhood is about is growing.”

Former District Leader Rosie Mendez, the Democratic nominee in the Nov. 8 election to succeed Lopez, recalled the years of battling with Giuliani and Singer over the old P.S. 64.

“It’s been eight years. We have not given up,” she said. She said that Armando Perez, the late co-founder of CHARAS/El Bohio, the arts group that occupied the old school for 20 years until its eviction under Giuliani, was still “in the building.” Perez was slain in 1999 after vowing to die before giving up the old schol.

“We want our building back. We will get it back,” Mendez said. “We will continue the struggle together!”

Father Julio Torres of St. Mark’s Church in the Bowery reminded people that St. Brigid’s Church on East Eighth Street is also in jeopardy, facing demolition.

“We still have a long way to go,” he said. “Just a few yards from here, we have a another struggle, a church that we are at risk of losing.”

Torres announced that “a victory event for CHARAS” will be held Sat., Nov. 12, at 5:30 p.m. at St. Mark’s Church in the Bowery.

Alfredo Irrizarry, a longtime supporter of CHARAS, said, “In the memory of Armando and his widow, Marianne Perez, the struggle continues — it never ended. We have had so many failures, so many letdowns. This is the beginning of so many good things.”

Aides for Congressmember Nydia Velazquez and State Senator Martin Connor also spoke.

Suddenly, Lopez said she was going to go inside the building — leading some momentarily to think she was about to brazenly go through the construction fence surrounding the site and trespass inside.

“Everybody! Let’s go inside! Rosie! Steve!” she called out as she led the activists and politicians not into the building — but behind the model of the old P.S. 64. “Isn’t this a great photo?” she asked, as their heads poked up from behind the model’s wall. “Mr. Singer, we are in the building now!”

The event ended with shouts of “Whose building? Our building!” and a celebratory champagne toast drunk from paper cups with shouts of “Vivé CHARAS!” and “Viva Armando Perez!”

Lopez had endorsed the mayor’s re-election’s bid five days before it was announced the old P.S. 64 had been calendared for landmarking, causing some to speculate the two had made a deal.

But last Thursday, Lopez vehemently denied her support was conditioned on saving the old school building.

“I don’t to that. I don’t do quid pro quo,” she stressed. “I am supporting Michael Bloomberg because he is the best candidate for mayor. We have made the case that this building should be landmarked, that it is landmarkable. We are blessed that we have Michael Bloomberg as mayor.”

Lopez pointed to East Ninth Street and Avenue B, which are being resurfaced, and said that that was something she has pushed for too, since the East Village’s streets have been so torn up by Con Edison work — but that, again, it wasn’t a case of a quid pro quo.

“I went to the administration and said we have to fix this problem,” she said.

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