Volume 75, Number 50 | May 3 - 9 2006

Villager photo by Clayton Patterson

At City Hall steps rally, from left, David McWater, Rosie Mendez, Clara Ruf-Maldonado, Nydia Velazquez and Scott Stringer.

Landmarks sets hearing date for old P.S. 64

By Lincoln Anderson

Robert Tierney, left, Landmarks chairperson, and Andrew Berman of G.V.S.H.P. shake on new landmarking designations.
Local politicians and community activists came together on the City Hall steps on Monday to celebrate the Landmarks Preservation Commission’s setting a date of May 16 for a public hearing on the old Public School 64 building. Five months ago, Landmarks announced the former school — on E. Ninth St. off Avenue B — had been calendared for a designation hearing, but as time dragged by and no date was set, advocates who hope to save the building grew worried.

And they’re still anxious. At the rally, speakers, anticipating that Landmarks will designate the building, urged the City Council not to overturn the designation — as recently happened in a notable case involving a historic Williamsburg warehouse building.

Developer Gregg Singer purchased the old P.S. 64 from the city for $3.15 million in 1998. He plans a 19-story university dormitory on the site, for which he would demolish most of the existing turn-of-the-century building, while incorporating its front facade into the project. So far, however, the city has denied Singer a permit to build; without any lease in place with institutional tenants, Singer has failed to convince the city his building would, in fact, be a dorm.

Local politicians, Community Board 3 and a coalition of activists fighting to save the building want to restore it and return it to use as an educational, cultural or community center. CHARAS/El Bohio arts and community center occupied the building when Singer bought it, though he succeeded in evicting them a few years later.

Among the speakers at Monday’s rally were Congressmember Nydia Velazquez; Councilmember Rosie Mendez; Borough President Scott Stringer; David McWater, Community Board 3 chairperson; Roland Legiardi-Laura, a member of the East Village Community Coalition; representatives of State Senator Martin Connor and Assemblymember Sylvia Friedman; and Demaris Reyes, executive director of Good Old Lower East Side.

Noticeably absent was former City Councilmember Margarita Lopez, who played a key role in the struggle to save the old P.S. 64, who last week got a job in the Housing Authority in the Bloomberg administration. Organizers explained that the rally was really for the “elected officials.”

However, according to a source, Lopez couldn’t make it because it was her first day at her new job. (Velazquez, who organized the event, had purposely scheduled it for May Day.)

“This is about the children,” said Velazquez. “We’ve got to provide a better future for the children of the Lower East Side. We cannot give in to the developers. The is a community that has suffered too long.”

Velazquez said the neighborhood was “severely underlandmarked, with only six designated sites.”

Said Mendez of the old P.S. 64, “It is beautiful. It is worthy of landmarking status. It has history. Sometimes a building is more than a building. Every critical movement to preserve our community happened in that building.”

Mendez added that the block of E. Ninth St. near the old CHARAS/El Bohio is soon to be co-named Armando Perez Place, after the former community center’s late artistic director. It would be fitting she said, for the street to be co-named for Perez, then for the building to be landmarked. If they can save the building, the advocates also hope to rename it for Perez.

“If this building were located in any other community, it would be landmarked,” declared Stringer. “We have to work to preserve the people of our community. We want to make sure everyone gets to stay in this neighborhood. This building is a symbol of that.”

McWater called it fitting that the rally was being held on a day of national immigrant protest, since the old P.S. 64 has always served immigrants.

“This school was built for immigrants coming from Eastern Europe,” he said. “When the city was having its fiscal problems in the 1970s, it was saved by immigrants,” he said, referring to the members of CHARAS, who chased out the drug dealers and hookers who had infested the decommissioned school building.

“It was a shooting gallery,” said Chino Garcia, a CHARAS founder. When they fixed up the building, it spurred a ripple effect of revival in the neighborhood around them, he recalled. Though after their eviction they were forced by high rents to relocate to East Harlem, Garcia assured of CHARAS, “We’re still around — believe me.”

Legiardi-Laura of E.V.C.C., which has spearheaded the effort to landmark the building, said, “There is one issue on which the community is totally unified — saving the Armando Perez Cultural Center in the old P.S. 64.”

Legiardi-Laura personally researched the building’s history, uncovering the fact that Yip Harburg, who wrote the lyrics to “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” and “The Wizard of Oz,” was a student there, as were many other show business luminaries. He also documented how education pioneer Elisabeth Irwin tested her theories at the school, that it was a popular campaign stop for the likes of Al Smith and F.D.R., and that it was the venue of one of the first outdoor plays with electric lights at a school.

“I am a product of CHARAS,” said Reyes, head of GOLES, the East Village-based tenants advocacy organization. With tears in her eyes, she said, “It is the last symbol of our struggle, of our community, which is being displaced. We need CHARAS as an incubator and a social justice hub for the Lower East Side. The people have a right to determine how the community is developed.”

The building carries a deed restriction for use as a community facility, which allows such things as dorms, medical offices, churches, libraries and rectories. Opponents of Singer’s plan argue his dorm wouldn’t be a true community facility, since it wouldn’t serve people from the neighborhood, who, they say, couldn’t afford it anyway.

It’s unlikely Landmarks would designate the building on May 16. This would probably happen at a subsequent hearing, following the opportunity for public input and review by the commissioners.

Yet, whether the building is landmarked or not, Singer still owns it — at least he does now.

“Our hope is that he will sell it back to the community,” said Michael Rosen of E.V.C.C., after the rally.

Legiardi-Laura noted that the minute the building is landmarked, its value will plummet, because landmarking will restrict Singer’s development plans. Singer recently has offered the building for sale for $50 million to $70 million. Legiardi-Laura contended that if the building is landmarked, Singer won’t get anywhere near that amount.

Singer did not return a call seeking comment.

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