Volume 76, Number 2 | May 31 - June 6 2006

Dorm developer’s side tears down old P.S. 64 at hearing

By Lincoln Anderson

An architectural historian and an urban studies professor speaking for developer Gregg Singer blasted the old P.S. 64 at a Landmarks Preservation Commission hearing Tuesday morning, saying the building was “like the poor relative from the other side of the tracks.”

One might think that Singer had at least some small bit of fondness for the ornate old school building at 605 E. Ninth St. when he purchased it for $3.15 million in 1998. But his “expert witnesses” repeatedly scorned and ridiculed it as lacking any distinguishing architecture or history and being unworthy of landmarking.

At the hearing’s outset, Robert Tierney, Landmarks commissioner, announced that the standstill agreement put in effect on May 16 would be extended another two weeks until June 21 when Landmarks would again meet to continue discussions on the building.

“That will insure that nothing happens there,” Tierney explained.

Under the agreement, Singer has temporarily agreed not to remove the terracotta detailing around the building’s windows and the copper trim around the building’s cornice. However, Singer — who wants to build a university dormitory on the site — has a valid permit to strip the existing building’s facade, and the permit would remain active even if the building is designated a landmark.

At the initial L.P.C. hearing on May 16, supporters of landmarking the building had passionately testified for designation, while Singer requested that his side be allowed to present at the follow-up hearing.

At Tuesday’s hearing, Andrew Alpern, who described himself as an architectural historian, architect and attorney who has written five books on New York City buildings — and who later said he lives in Chelsea — tried to punch holes in the argument that the old P.S. 64 is worthy of landmarking. First off, he said, the fact that Singer can scrape the building’s sides clean, even after its possible landmarking, should disqualify it.

“A [landmark] designation here could not withstand scrutiny when made with the knowledge that the owner has the right to complete the work on that approved [permit] — work that would leave the building in a scalped and denuded state,” Alpern said.

The partisan crowd of about 50 groaned its disapproval at Alpern’s violent description of how the community symbol could be defaced. Many of them wore stickers sporting a quote by Singer reported in The Villager last month — “The building is coming down, wave bye bye” — that he allegedly made to Michael Rosen, a member of the East Village Community Coalition, after the first hearing.

Afterwards, Roland Legiardi-Laura, of E.V.C.C., explained, regarding the stickers: “We basically just felt that that was a such a revealing and telling quote that we wanted to make sure no one missed it — that the Landmarks commissioners saw it.”

Even if the building were not scraped, Alpern said, there are other old “H”-style school buildings in Manhattan designed by renowned schools architect C.B.J. Snyder that are not landmarked that are more deserving of designation than Snyder’s old P.S. 64 near Tompkins Square Park in the East Village.

“The test is a comparison with comparable buildings, which in this case means comparing the former P.S. 64 with other public schools designed by C.B.J. Snyder. This building does not measure up,” Alpern declared.

Decommissioned as a New York City public school in the late 1970s, the old P.S. 64 was built from 1904-’06. The “H”-style building is of the type that Snyder designed for midblock sites so that the schoolchildren could receive ample light and air.

Alpern said P.S. 165 on W. 109th St., Snyder’s first “H”-plan school, makes P.S. 64 by comparison seem like a “second-rate second-comer.” He called P.S. 17 on W. 48th St. “muscular” with “power and panache” that the old P.S. 64 lacks. The old P.S. 64 “doesn’t even begin to measure up to” P.S. 150, another “H” school on E. 96th St., he said. Likewise, he continued, P.S. 171 on E. 103rd St. is “far more successful” than the old P.S. 64. Another “H”-style Snyder school, P.S. 168 on E. 104th St., is “far better done than” its E. Ninth St. counterpart, Alpern contended, going on to cite several more Snyder-designed schools that he touted as vastly superior.

Concluding, Alpern said, “P.S. 64 looks positively pathetic when compared to Snyder’s other schools…like the poor relative from the other side of the tracks.” Snyder’s other school buildings make the old P.S. 64 “want to shrink into a dark corner from architectural embarrassment,” while designating it would “make a mockery” of landmarks law, he pronounced. “Landmarking is not a popularity contest,” he pointed out.

The audience snorted its disapproval at Alpern’s provocatively calling the building “a poor relative from the other side of the tracks,” taking it as a personal affront.

Alpern was followed by Robert Fogelson, an M.I.T. urban studies and history professor, who tried to discredit the school’s place in the Lower East Side’s cultural and educational history.

The former school’s alumni include Yip Harburg, lyricist of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” Joseph Mankiewicz, Oscar-winning screenwriter, producer and director of such films as “The Philadelphia Story,” “Guys and Dolls” and “Cleopatra,” and Morris Green, who produced Cole Porter’s “Greenwich Village Follies,” “Louder Please” and the Broadway version of Eugene O’Neill’s “Desire Under The Elms.” Elizabeth Irwin, founder of the Little Red Schoolhouse, taught for nine years at the old P.S. 64, where she first experimented with her theories of tracked education.

But Fogelson called this a paltry crop of famed alumni.

“The list of graduates is very skimpy,” he said. “Four [distinguished] graduates? Four graduates of the school? Nor is there any evidence that the school shaped these individuals.”

He downplayed the old P.S. 64’s role in pioneering changes in education, adding that the school’s connection to the groundbreaking, progressive Little Red Schoolhouse was “tenuous.”

And he minimized the significance of the school in the neighborhood’s immigrant experience.

“P.S. 64 was not made to perpetuate the culture of the immigrants — but to obliterate it,” he said, again prompting grumblings of outrage from the gallery. Although politicians like F.D.R. and Al Smith spoke there, their speeches weren’t memorable, he said.

Also testifying against the landmarking was Michael Slattery of the Real Estate Board of New York.

Noting that Community Board 3 is also moving to downzone the East Village and part of the Lower East Side, as well as the effort to landmark the old P.S. 64, he said, “We feel this is an effort to stop development.”

Similarly Jeffrey Glen, Singer’s attorney, said, “What’s going on here is the use of the landmarking process to stop the building process — the building of a dormitory.” When the old school was auctioned, it had not been landmarked and thus if it were to be landmarked now it would be a sale “under false pretenses,” he said.

Several speakers who support the landmarking who didn’t have a chance to speak at the first hearing were allowed to testify after Singer’s representatives.

Eric Wallach spoke of the importance of the former CHARAS/El Bohio — which was in the building for 20 years until Singer evicted it — as a space for artists to rehearse and perform and as a community center.

“Since it’s been closed, we don’t have a space to say hi to each other,” he said. “We’ve lost our community center.

Holly Kaye, founder of the Lower East Side Conservancy, said the building played a vital role for successive waves of immigrants on the Lower East Side.

“It may not be the best work of C.B.J. Snyder, but it certainly meets the standards,” she said. “We need to have this building to show to our children and grandchildren. We need to preserve these tangible icons for our future generations, for our collective memory.”

Jennifer Morris, a historical consultant for E.V.C.C., listed various features of the building that were noteworthy, including its auditorium with a ground-level entrance and the fact that it was probably the first school to host an outdoor theater performance using electric lights.

Melissa Maldonado-Salcedo, an aide to Congressmember Nydia Velazquez, said she was speaking for herself as a person who is “indigenous” to the Lower East Side.

“I ride my bike each day to work and I go up E. Ninth St. to see the old P.S. 64 because it inspires me,” she said. “While you think this building is denuded and on the wrong side of the tracks, that’s exactly why we identify with it,” she said, sparking an explosion of applause.

Singer’s most recent publicly stated plans call for building a 19-story dorm on the site of the old school, while keeping only the shell of the existing building’s Ninth St. facade. However, the Department of Buildings has denied him a permit, on the basis that he doesn’t have a 10-year lease from an educational institution, and thus cannot prove the dorm will function as such once built.

A lawsuit Singer recently filed against Mayor Bloomberg, L.P.C., D.O.B. and the Board of Standards and Appeals claims that Singer earlier this year tried to cut deals with representatives of Deputy Mayor Dan Doctoroff, such as building a smaller dorm only four stories above the old P.S. 64 or swapping his 120,000 square feet of building air rights above the building for an equal amount on another site, but that the city has been refusing to make any deals with him.

Asked after Tuesday’s hearing about his allegedly trying to work something out with the city over the old P.S. 64 property, Singer said, “Deals, deals — you’re always making deals” in real estate.

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