Volume 76, Number 10 | July 26 - August 1, 2006

Villager photos by Jefferson Siegel

The demolition crew started by chipping away the limestone detailing around a fifth-floor dormer on the old school’s northwest side.

Claiming Mendez snub, owner starts whacking the old P.S. 64

By Lincoln Anderson

Claiming that the city left him no choice and that Councilmember Rosie Mendez “reneged” on a meeting — yet saying it pains him to do it — Gregg Singer on Tuesday morning had demolition workers start chipping away at the historic limestone and terracotta exterior detailing of the old P.S. 64 building on E. Ninth St.

Melissa Maldonado-Salcedo, an aide to Congressmember Nydia Velazquez, said she heard the disturbing sound of the drill when she was biking down Ninth St. on her way to Velazquez’s 11th St. district office that morning. She came out onto 10th St. and Avenue B around 10:30 a.m. to witness the workers starting to dismantle a fifth-floor dormer window on the building’s northeast side. There was one crew of two men working on a scaffold, using a hammer and a drill. Alternating between hammering and drilling, they managed to remove the keystone from the top of the dormer, then eventually moved on to remove more of the dormer’s trim. It looked like slow-going work.

“The worst thing is that you hear it,” Maldonado-Salcedo said of the steady pecking and grinding sounds. “But you can’t chip away the history.”

Having done some sculpting in college, and familiar with stonework, she said the demolition of the terracotta must be done slowly and carefully, since it’s a bit dangerous at that height. Indeed, at one point, the workers accidentally let drop a large chunk of terracotta, which crashed into the school’s rear courtyard.

Having gotten word that the demolition had started, David McWater, chairperson of Community Board 3, came by to take a look.

“Why? Just to be spiteful?” he questioned of Singer’s motive for starting the exterior demolition. “Just childish,” he said. “It’s his only bargaining chip. You’re never supposed to use your bargaining chip. Why would you spend money doing that?”

In a stunning victory for the community, the city’s Landmarks Preservation Commission on June 20 designated the turn-of-the-century school building an individual landmark, effectively blocking Singer’s plan to build a 19-story university dormitory on the site. The Department of Buildings had also previously denied Singer a building permit for the dorm on the grounds that he has no lease in place with an educational institution. Last week, in another blow to Singer, the Board of Standards and Appeals rejected his appeal of D.O.B.’s ruling.

Dressed in a blue T-shirt and white shorts, Singer was at the building Tuesday morning as the exterior demolition had started. He was meeting with a contractor who Singer said will “build out” the interiors of Singer’s planned Christotora Treatment Center, a facility providing temporary housing for the homeless and ex-convicts, supportive housing for people with H.I.V./AIDS and services for the mentally ill, substance abusers and “troubled youth.” Singer said he hopes to have the treatment center running by year’s end, but that that’s optimistic.

As he said last month, Singer reiterated that his plan is to lop off the building’s exterior details — or, as his lawyers have put it, to “scalp” and “denude” the building — then argue in court that the old school never should have been landmarked in the first place, in hopes of overturning the landmarking. Although a court has never overturned a New York City landmark designation, Singer hopes his case will set a precedent.

“Yeah, we have a good shot, we believe,” he said. “And I have to take a shot; it’s too much money.”

Singer said any funding that an architectural trust might give him to help restore the unaltered landmarked building is insignificant — he estimated it would only be $500,000 — compared to the profit he stands to gain if he succeeds in developing the dorm.

“If I can’t build the dorm, I’m losing $36 million,” he said, referring to the property’s air rights that he would use to build the dorm. So, he’s unconcerned about potentially losing any funds by obliterating the window trim and details.

Singer’s permit for the facade demolition work was issued prior to the building’s landmarking, so it’s still valid, despite the building’s designation. Yet, he said, the permit expires in three months, and the city’s Law Department recently told him the Bloomberg administration doesn’t plan to renew it. So, he said, because the facade work will take three months, he has to do it now before the permit runs out.

Singer said he has three options for the property: the dorm, his first choice; the treatment center; or a market-rate, residential building. He said his second preferred option is a tossup between the treatment center and the residential housing, for which he would want to add four stories on top of the existing building. The housing would provide the best short-term return, which his investors like; but the city would have to remove the property’s deed restriction for use as a community-use facility. He plans to do the treatment center in the meantime while he wages his legal battles with the city. The shelter — possibly with up to 400 beds — could have good long-term profits, but for that he’d eventually have to get city funding, he said.

Singer accused Councilmember Rosie Mendez and Congressmember Velazquez of “reneging” on a July 19 meeting they had set up to discuss the building. He said that at a meeting with them earlier in the month, they had discussed the option of providing some space for the community in the building. On Tuesday, he said he couldn’t say how much space was proposed because of a confidentiality agreement.

At the same time, Singer said, he understood Mendez had had knee surgery, which was a reason why their meeting had been delayed, and that he sympathized.

“I understand that, I can wait for that,” he said.

But the city proposed the idea of residential housing in February, yet hasn’t followed up on it with him, Singer complained.

“They say they want to work in good faith. They meet with me every few months. That’s not in good faith,” he said. “The city has forced me into this situation, because they know I have to start the [demolition] work for my legal case.”

In addition to planning to sue to overturn the building’s landmarking, Singer said he’ll certainly appeal the B.S.A.’s denial of his appeal in hopes of getting a building permit for the dorm. Singer said he’s in it for the long haul, and that the city is to blame for not sitting down with him to work out a solution.

“They want me to give the building up for free — which I’m never going to do,” he vowed.

“It’s such a shame. It’s a beautiful building,” Singer said, regarding his ordering the workers strip its outside clean.

So then, he was asked, if the building’s so beautiful, why not just preserve it?

“I mean it’s beautiful,” he said. “But not to the tune of losing $36 million.”

Singer said he can’t leave it up to Landmarks to decide if he can build the dorm tower, but must try to reverse the building’s landmarking.

“There’s no integrity in this administration,” he charged. “If they did have integrity, they would have worked out a deal with me years ago.”

Mendez said that after their initial July 6 meeting with Singer, she and Velazquez were unable to meet with him the following week, because Mendez was having knee surgery and Velazquez had to be in Washington, D.C.

A firm date was never set for the follow-up meeting, Mendez stressed. After her knee surgery, on the tentative date of the follow-up meeting — which she recalls as having been July 20 — she was putting weight on her knee, on crutches, for the first day and was in considerable pain, though was able to attend a Council session, she said. Her lawyer and Singer’s lawyer did speak and it was agreed that there would be another meeting soon. Mendez said she and Singer can’t talk directly because Singer is suing the city.

“I don’t know that we made a firm date. We talked about meeting in two weeks — that was the week after my surgery,” Mendez said. “He was trying to meet sooner. In light of everything and what was going on, I felt that we were working as fast as we could on our end. Apparently, it wasn’t fast enough for him. But his tearing down the building shows that he wasn’t working in good faith.”

Asked if she would meet with Singer now, Mendez initially said no way.

“I told him I would not meet with him if he touched that building,” she said. “What he did today was wrong. I’m not going to reward that and meet with him. Could he legally do it? Yes — it’s a loophole in the law that we need to legally remedy.”

But she slightly softened her position, leaving an opening that she possibly might meet with Singer, though it’s still unlikely.

“Unless I can be convinced otherwise, by my attorneys or the congressmember [Velazquez], I don’t think there’s a reason to meet now,” Mendez said.

Michael Rosen of East Village Community Coalition, the group that successfully fought to landmark the former school, expressed exasperation with Singer’s latest move.

“To willfully deface a building that’s been landmarked, what does he think he’s achieving?” Rosen asked. “The gun’s smoking now — he pulled the trigger.

“For the life of me, I don’t see the logic,” he said. “I just don’t.”

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