Volume 76, Number 1 | May 24 - 30, 2006

Old P.S. 64 owner sues city; wants $100 million

By Lincoln Anderson

Gregg Singer, the embattled developer whose plan to build a 19-story megadorm on the site of the old P.S. 64 on E. Ninth St. has so far been frustrated by the city, filed a lawsuit against the city last week, seeking at least $100 million in damages. The defendants in the suit are Mayor Mike Bloomberg and three agencies in his administration, the Department of Buildings, the Board of Standards and Appeals and the Landmarks Preservation Commission.

The lead attorney on the suit is Randy Mastro, who was a deputy mayor under former Mayor Rudy Giuliani in 1998 when the city auctioned the decommissioned school building - then occupied by CHARAS/El Bohio community and cultural center - which Singer bought for $3.15 million.

Filed in New York State Supreme Court, the suit charges that Singer's rights to due process under the Fifth and 14th amendments of the Constitution have been violated and that the city has engaged in “tortious interference” by sabotaging his efforts to attract university tenants for the project.

Bloomberg and former City Councilmember Margarita Lopez are accused in the suit of cutting a “dirty deal,” under which Lopez, a Democrat, agreed to endorse the Republican mayor for re-election, helping him win Latino voter support, in return for which the mayor agreed to quash Singer's plan.

“On more than one occasion,” the suit notes, “press accounts in The Villager speculated about a deal relating to plaintiff's dormitory between Lopez and Mayor Bloomberg, whom Lopez publicly endorsed on Oct. 13, 2005, just days before the B.S.A. rejected plaintiff's appeal [of the Department of Buildings' earlier denial of a building permit for the dorm].” Lopez and the mayor have both denied to The Villager that there was any quid pro quo in Lopez's endorsement of him.

The suit charges that Singer has always had the legal right to develop a student dormitory on the site, which is allowed under the site's deed restriction for community facility use, but that the Buildings Department has changed the rules on him. First, the suit charges, D.O.B. doubted his building plans were for dormitory rooms, feeling they appeared residential; then, D.O.B. said he had to produce a 10-year lease proving existence of a “university or college nexus” - or connection - with the building, as opposed to merely student housing without any connection to an educational institution.

The suit says it's unfair for the city to try to landmark the building after Singer purchased it, that the building is unremarkable and that there are, in fact, 10 other such “H”-style school buildings extant in the city. The city should quickly landmark the other 10, if it designates the old P.S. 64, the suit posits.

The suit notes that earlier efforts by Singer to find nonprofit tenants to fill the existing five-story building failed, causing him to resort to the dormitory idea. The suit accuses Lopez and her successor, Councilmember Rosie Mendez, of warning nonprofits that they wouldn't get government funding if they worked with Singer. The suit lists 21 nonprofit organizations Lopez allegedly warned off from the building, including Beth Israel Hospital, the Educational Alliance, New York Society for the Deaf, the YMCA and The House for Elderly Artists. Lopez has denied she warned off prospective tenants. Mendez is accused in the suit of “making similar threats” to eight nonprofits, including the Lower East Side Harm Reduction Center, Bowery Residents Committee, Housing Works, The Doe Fund and Volunteers of America.

Mendez said she never contacted any of the above organizations.

“I can't speak for Margarita, but…he's a liar,” she said. “I think when all is said and done, his lawsuit will have no basis and no merit. Clearly, in some cases, he's using lies.” Speaking on Tuesday, Mendez said the director of the Harm Reduction Center had just called her office, as a matter of fact, to say that the center was never interested in space at 605 E. Ninth St. and that he would state this publicly.

Lopez didn't return a phone call for comment by press time.

As opposed to any “dirty deal,” though, Mendez said Lopez and Bloomberg simply had a good relationship, which was reflected in other ways the mayor helped Lopez with projects in her district, such as securing a site for the Lower East Side Girls Club's new clubhouse and funding renovations for East River Park.

Prospective tenants for the old P.S. 64 building were also scared off by harassment by activists, some of who made threats against Singer's life, the suit points out.

In addition, the suit notes, posters were pasted on the construction fence around the old P.S. 64 telling people to throw dog feces over it to express their objection to the project, while other opponents posted fliers saying the dorm's architects, Beyer Blinder Belle, “designed Auschwitz.”

The suit lists 17 schools, saying that Bloomberg and the city “intentionally interfered” with Singer's “prospective business relations” with them, including Cooper Union, F.I.T., La Salle Academy, New School University, New York University, Pace and Touro College. However, N.Y.U., New School and Cooper Union have all previously told The Villager they're not interested in Singer's dorm. Specifically, the suit says that according to Cheryl Mills, an N.Y.U. official, City Hall asked N.Y.U. “not to get involved with” the project.

Last October, it was announced that the Landmarks Preservation Commission had calendared the building for a designation hearing, ratcheting up the pressure on Singer that he might not be able to build his tower. Last week, Landmarks held its first public hearing on the building,

In the suit, Singer claims that on Feb. 22 of this year, Mark Ricks, senior policy advisor to Deputy Mayor Dan Doctoroff, and Josh Sirefman, Doctoroff's chief of staff, told him the city intended to block any use of the property by Singer, “whether as a dormitory or any other community facility.” Singer claims they demanded he give the building's 24,000-square-foot basement “to the community.”

Singer claims that on March 8, he met with Ricks and Sirefman again and offered to build a structure smaller than the 19-story dorm - one with only four floors above the existing old school building. (Singer previously had lowered the project's height from 26 floors and agreed to keep the existing old P.S. 64's front facade as part of the project - the latter, the suit says, in an attempt to placate the Landmarks Preservation Commission.) Also on March 8, Singer claims he offered to give the community 7,500 square feet in the basement “for a reasonable price,” but that Ricks and Sirefman rejected the offer.

Singer claims, in fact, that Ricks - regarding the developer's chance of developing any community-facility use on the property - told him, “It ain't happening in this lifetime.” Singer alleges that, also on March 8, he then proposed to swap the old P.S. 64 building's developable air rights of 120,000 square feet “for other vacant city-owned property of a similar size,” but that the two Doctoroff officials “said they didn't want to do that kind of a deal.”

The suit also notes that Singer is “the fourth generation of a real estate family with a long tradition of building low-income housing for seniors and other facilities for the benefit of nonprofit organizations.” In 1922, Louis Singer, Gregg Singer's great-grandfather, founded and was president of the Home of Old Israel, a privately endowed nonprofit formed to provide free housing, meals, activities and care for seniors on a nonsectarian basis. From 1922 to 1965, the Home of Old Israel “provided free housing and services for hundreds of people on the Lower East Side,” the suit says. From 1922 to 1929, it was located at 204 Henry St., now the site of Gouverneur Hospital. From 1929 to 1965, the organization was located at 70 Jefferson St., now the LaGuardia Houses. Jack Singer, Gregg Singer's grandfather, in the early 1970s merged the Home of Old Israel with the Jewish Association for Services for the Aged (JASA), which today has 50 facilities serving senior citizens.

Gabriel Taussig, chief of the administrative law division of the city's Law Department, said the city received Singer's lawsuit last week.

“We don't believe there's any merit to any of the claims and will vigorously defend against the lawsuit,” Taussig said. “We're going to aggressively defend the city's interest in this case.” No court date has been set.

Asked about Singer's accusations that D.O.B. has treated him unfairly, Ilyse Fink, a Buildings spokesperson, said, “We don't comment on pending litigation - but clearly we do not agree with his position.”

Michael Rosen, a member of the East Village Community Coalition, which has led the effort to landmark the old P.S. 64, said he was disappointed by the lawsuit.

“It sounds very sad to me,” he said. “A hundred million dollars - for what? For the landmarks designation process taking due course or the Department of Buildings doing its job? I can't imagine Mayor Bloomberg, from his public persona, or Margarita Lopez - who I know and respect - of being involved in any transaction that is less than honorable.

“And one other thing,” Rosen added, “If your grandparents or parents did well by a community, that gives you no right to desecrate or perpetuate harm upon a community.”

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