Volume 78 - Number 40 / March 11 -17, 2009
West and East Village, Chelsea, Soho, Noho, Little Italy, Chinatown and Lower East Side, Since 1933

Villager photo by Isaac Rosenthal

Carlos “Chino” Garcia, director of CHARAS, speaking at Monday’s rally outside the old P.S. 64 on E. 10th St.

It’s time to ‘take back’ old P.S. 64, activists cry

By Lincoln Anderson

East Village activists and preservationists rallied outside the old P.S. 64 Monday afternoon, demanding that the Landmarks Preservation Commission save the neglected turn-of-the-century school from ruin. They called for fines of $5,000, and even $10,000, per day against the building’s owner — and declared that it was time for the community to “take back” the building the way they used to do it — by squatting.

As dirty, shredded, blue and white tarps flapped in the breeze atop the hacked-up dormer windows on the once-proud building’s 10th St. side, about 40 activists gathered on the sidewalk below, just east of Avenue B.

They railed against the building’s owner, Gregg Singer, and said he must pay for how he has let the building deteriorate. In addition to the brick around the windows being left exposed to the rain and snow, pieces of the facade fell off the building’s 10th St. side in October 2008. Luckily, no one was injured.

Singer purchased the decommissioned school from the city at auction for $3.15 million in 1998. However, the city subsequently landmarked the building in June 2006. Two months later, Singer used a pre-existing permit to chop off the window details, in an effort to overturn the landmarking. At the same time, he threatened to turn the old P.S. 64 into the “Christotora Treatment Center,” offering 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,” as he put it.

But all Singer’s lawsuits against the city, including the one seeking to undo the building’s designation, have failed.

After years of fruitless efforts trying to build a dormitory tower on the site, Singer apparently has finally given up, and is now just trying to lease out the existing building as a student dormitory. As first reported last month by The Villager, the Art Institute of New York City, a Tribeca graphic-design-focused school, recently rejected an offer to house its students there.

“Gregg Singer, you’re sinning!” a blue-suited Reverend Billy, the performance-artist preacher, cried up at the building at Monday’s rally. “Let’s squat again! Let’s take it back! CHARAS-alujah!”

Billy said his After Stop Shopping Choir is just one of the many artistic groups that got their start in the building when it was formerly the CHARAS/El Bohio Cultural and Community Center and offered cheap rehearsal space. Today, he and his choir tour around the world, he said.

Mary Spink, director of Lower East Side People’s Mutual Housing Association, said her group first met in the building when it couldn’t pay any rent.

“CHARAS was the heart of the struggle to preserve our community as low-income and affordable,” said Valerio Orselli, director of the Cooper Square Mutual Housing Association. “But Giuliani and his cohorts put a stake in the heart of this community. We need to pull it out. The community should take the building back by any means — eminent domain or buyout.”

Simeon Bankoff, director of the Historic Districts Council, said, “This building, which the city has designated as a landmark, is being destroyed in front of our eyes. We need to have the city get this building back from this criminal.”

Bankoff said there are only 1,200 individual landmarked buildings in the city, and that the old P.S. 64 must not be allowed to become a precedent for how a landlord can get away with intentionally letting his or her building slide into irreparable decay.

Carlos “Chino” Garcia, CHARAS’s director, said the old school's exterior had been repointed when they occupied it, and that there was no reason for Singer to chop off any of its details.

“It’s very important to realize that this is a public facility,” Garcia stressed. “Technically, it’s supposed to be for the public. Singer signed a deed about that.”
Other speakers recalled how they had sent their children to — or even themselves attended — the school when it was still functioning, before CHARAS took over the space.

Damaris Reyes, executive director of GOLES, which advocates for tenants and small businesses, and District Leader Anthony Feliciano, who both grew up nearby, recalled what important formative experiences they had had there when it was CHARAS/El Bohio.

Borough President Scott Stringer said the city must intervene.

“I have a message for this landlord,” Stringer said. “He better get with the program and understand the law. And the Landmarks Preservation Commission, the Mayor’s Office, the Department of Education — I don’t care what agency — has to step in and help.”

However, when The Villager called Singer, he referred questions to Hoffman Management, which he said is now in charge of the property. Apparently, with no hope any longer of building a lucrative dorm tower, Singer has moved on.
“The school project — that was taken over and transferred to Hoffman Management in June ’08,” Singer said. “I’m still an investor in the project, but they’re the project manager and they’re handling the project. I’m onto other stuff, other projects.”

Asked what other projects he was working on, Singer didn’t want to discuss things further, complained of unfair past coverage in The Villager, said goodbye and hung up.

There are at least two or three Hoffman Management companies in New York City, but the one handling 605 E. Ninth St. is located at 300 W. 55th St.

“We are managing the building,” confirmed Steve Hoffman Tuesday afternoon. However, he referred questions to his brother, Mark, who he said is “the one to talk to” about the project. Mark, though, had run out to a meeting, and The Villager was unable to connect with him by press time.

As for what the city is or isn’t doing regarding the sorry state of the old P.S. 64, Lisi de Bourbon, Landmarks spokesperson, said in an e-mail: “Members of the L.P.C.’s senior staff inspected the former school with the owner’s representative in December 2008 to assess its condition. This inspection found that the building is structurally sound and was constructed in a very robust way — with steel columns and beams and masonry walls. One large window on the north side of the building blew out in a storm this past fall and the owner, at the direction of the L.P.C., temporarily sealed it with plywood. 

“If the owner fails to replace the window,” de Bourbon said, “the commission will issue a violation, which can carry fines of up to $5,000. We also expect the owner to take steps to address several leaks in the roof in localized areas.”

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