Volume 73, Number 50 | March 14 - 20, 2004



Towering dorm is proposed on the former CHARAS site

By Lincoln Anderson

Villager file photo

The former public school building at 605 E. Ninth St. where CHARAS/El Bohio was headquartered has sat vacant the last two years.

Tompkins Sq. could soon start to resemble Washington Sq. in terms of a resident student population if a nonprofit group follows through on plans to build a 23-story dormitory with 700 to 800 beds on the site of the former CHARAS/El Bohio arts and community center.

Located at 605 E. Ninth St. east of Avenue B, just off the park, the former public school building has sat empty for the last two years following the eviction of CHARAS.

The National Development Council, a nonprofit 501(c)(3) organization headquartered in New York City, is exploring building the dormitory. According to Daniel Marsh, N.D.C.’s regional manager and president of N.D.C. Housing and Economic Development Corporation, under the plan, Gregg Singer, who bought the school building at auction for $3.15 million in 1998, would continue to own the land; N.D.C. would own the building and pay Singer an up-front payment as well as a continuing ground lease; after 50 years, possession of the building would be transferred to the land’s owner.

Established in 1969, when it did its first projects in Bedford-Stuyvesant, N.D.C., bills itself as one of the nation’s oldest and most respected nonprofit corporations dedicated to creating jobs and affordable housing. It has developed over $1 billion worth of construction projects and owns 5,000 units of affordable housing around the country.

Marsh said the organization has identified student housing as part of its mission. He emphasized N.D.C.’s goal is to help communities.

“We’re not typical developers. We do not try to come in and do something that’s going to be a lightning rod for problems,” he said. “We want to build something in the community that everyone can look to as an asset, not an eyesore.”

He said market studies by local universities have shown a demand for student housing in Lower Manhattan. However, N.D.C. does not have any agreements with local schools yet, and without them the project won’t happen, he said.

“We’re exploring it,” Marsh said of the dorm, to be called University House at Tompkins Square Park. “We’ve been talking to universities and colleges, but we have no commitments at this point. We know there’s a need.”

Marsh didn’t volunteer which schools they’ve talked with. Asked if they’d spoken to New York University or Pace University, for example, Marsh said, “Those names sound familiar.” How about Cooper Union, New School University or School of Visual Arts?

“I’ll tell you we haven’t spoken to Cooper Union,” he said. “I can say we talked to every school in the vicinity that would have a housing need.” N.D.C. is reaching out to government-funded as well as private universities, he said.

They are considering the possibility of several universities, perhaps as many as five, housing students in the facility simultaneously. A similar arrangement has worked in Chicago, Marsh said.

John Beckman, an N.Y.U. spokesperson, said, “The developer approached us, but we indicated we weren’t interested and there are no conversations going on. We didn’t think it was a good fit.”

“We’re not involved in the discussions,” said Gloria Gottschalk, a New School spokesperson.

Instead of long-term leases, the contracts with universities would be for five years, according to Marsh. The schools would pay nothing and, in fact, only stand to profit: For example, if five universities each took 20 percent of the rooms, then for every $1 of profit, each university would receive 20 cents, Marsh said. The nonprofit N.D.C. would take none of the surplus. The universities would each get a seat on the dorm’s board of directors.

Students would pay $700 a month rent. If the universities didn’t fill their allotment of rooms, then they would have to pay the difference. If the dorm is built but local schools don’t fill all the rooms, N.D.C. would then look on the “student market” to fill the vacancies, said Marsh.

The estimated $100 million project would be financed with tax-exempt, 501(c)(3) bonds from the New York State Dormitory Authority. As for the upfront payment to Singer, Marsh said, “without bona fide interest” from colleges, he couldn’t say how much it would be.


INCLUDES a BIG PLAZA

Somewhat resembling a smaller United Nations Secretariat building in shape, as currently configured, the dorm would be a rectangular slab running through the block from E. Ninth St. to 10th St.; it would be built on one-third of the property, with a plaza area on the other two-thirds. The building’s height wouldn’t benefit from a so-called plaza bonus, Marsh said, though, because it would be built on just a third of the lot, it would be three times taller than if built on the whole footprint of the property.

The plaza would have trees and active recreational uses for the students, such as basketball, handball and rollerblading, Marsh said. Asked if there would be any passive recreational space in the plaza, Marsh said active recreation would be what students would want. The housing would be college “quad” style, with singles or doubles clustered in suites. Underground would be parking for 65 cars.

The existing five-story former school building would be demolished, Marsh said.

“The building, unfortunately, isn’t suitable for what we plan to do,” he explained.

The building, however, is invested with great meaning for some in the community. In the ’70s, CHARAS, a group of former Puerto Rican gang members including Armando Perez, the late East Village Democratic district leader, squatted in the abandoned school, turning it into an arts and community center and renting out rehearsal and studio space to the likes of the Fringe Festival.

Previous administrations never tried to sell the building. But under former Mayor Giuliani, it was put on the block and — despite the release of thousands of crickets by CHARAS supporters to disrupt the auction — bought by Singer. After a drawn-out legal battle, two years ago CHARAS was evicted.

El Bohio means “the hut” in Taino, Puerto Rico’s indigenous language, the revival of which CHARAS encouraged. However, the towering dormitory clearly would be far from a hut.

“It would be a taller building in the neighborhood,” admitted Marsh. Taller even than the neighboring 16-story Christadora House, spoiling the eastern views of the former settlement house, converted into luxury condominium residences in the mid-1980s, when it became a symbol of anti-gentrification anger.


FEARS A bait-and-switch ‘SCAM’

Anna Sawaryn, head of the Coalition to Save the East Village, grew up on the block and remembers walking past the school as a youngster. Skeptical of the project, she charged that a current “scam” of developers is to say they are doing dormitories, so they can use the community-facilities zoning bonus to build larger — then “in 20 or 30 years they sell it as apartments. They’re being built as apartments that can be easily converted into luxury housing later,” she alleged.

But Marsh said it’s not the intention of the nonprofit N.D.C. to convert the building or sell it to someone else that would.

“They’re not like general-living apartments,” he said of the dorm units’ designs. “It’s like a quad you’d see on many college campuses. It would have to be completely gutted [to be converted to residential apartments].”

After buying the building, Singer said he was trying to find tenants allowable under the property’s community-facilities deed restriction, such as schools, medical facilities or senior day centers. However, nothing firm every emerged, until now with the dormitory proposal.

The project would be as of right, meaning no variances or special permits are needed. Jennifer Givner, a Department of Buildings spokesperson, said that dormitories, generally speaking, are considered community facilities according to the city’s zoning resolution, but that the department won’t comment on the project’s legality until plans are submitted. (Other uses qualifying as community facilities, according to D.O.B., include libraries, monasteries, convents, churches, nursing homes and noncommercial art galleries.)

Marsh said N.D.C.’s only relationship with Singer would be that Singer would own the land and they’d own the building and pay a ground lease. Singer did not return The Villager’s calls. However, according to Marsh, Singer must have contacted Allison Lee, a lobbyist with Pat Lynch Associates, since Lee told Marsh The Villager was interested in the project, leading him to call the newspaper. Marsh is working with Lee on state legislation to issue tax-exempt Dormitory Authority bonds. (Every time Dormitory Authority bonds are issued a brief piece of legislation is required, Marsh noted.)

However, there’s no doubt N.D.C. will face determined opposition to the project. Susan Howard, organizer of the effort to save CHARAS/El Bohio, was incensed when asked her thoughts about the dormitory plan.

Howard’s immediate reaction was they would hold a huge protest march.

“I knew it,” she said, accusing Singer of clandestinely planning a mega-dormitory all along. Howard contended the building was taller than zoning allows. “There’s no way he can get this height,” she said. Since no universities are apparently interested, she suspects the building is really planned as a stealth jumbo youth hostel.

Told of the project last Thursday night, after her talk on running for borough president at Village Independent Democrats, Councilmember Margarita Lopez said no way would she accept it, adding she’ll be leading the protest.

“If this is a proposal to build dormitories for anyone…I’m the first to be marching against it,” she said. “This building is slated for community use and a dormitory is university use. And I really, really hope that none of the universities are behind this and if they are — aye dio mi ….

“That building is still there because the man who bought it from the Giuliani administration didn’t listen to the community,” Lopez continued. “Look, ‘community use’ is community use — people from the community use the space. Can we sleep in there?

“That space is community space that was stolen from us, and I am not going to be happy until it is returned to the community,” she added. “The owner of that space can sell it back to the community, sell it back to CHARAS; he can recover his investment.”

Lopez’s ties to CHARAS/El Bohio run deep. Perez and Lopez were co-district leaders and friends; it was Perez who first encouraged a reluctant Lopez to run for office. Five years ago this month Perez was fatally beaten by two young thugs after an altercation in Long Island City, where his estranged wife lived.


SPACE FOR CHARAS?

Marsh said he wasn’t familiar with CHARAS and the struggle over the cultural center. But he said he was open to talking with CHARAS — and, in keeping with N.D.C.’s mission to help the community, possibly even giving the organization space in the new building.

“If we could give them 500 sq. ft. and it worked, we’d give them 500 sq. ft.,” he said. “If we could give them 10,000 sq. ft. based on a community need, we’d try to do it.”

After the eviction, CHARAS relocated to an East Harlem loft. Chino Garcia, CHARAS’s director, did not respond to calls by press time. Slimma Williams, an employee who answered the phone, said CHARAS’s main activities currently include free computer and English-as-a-second-language classes. Told of Marsh’s possible offer of space to CHARAS, he said, “Sounds pretty good.” Garcia reportedly may be under a gag order from an agreement with Singer.

Told of CHARAS’s supporters’ animosity for Singer, Marsh said, “Hopefully, they’ll like us better than they like Gregg. We’re a pretty good organization. We’re confident that if the neighborhood gets to know us, they’ll see we’re not out to hurt the neighborhood.”

Bob Perl, a local real estate broker, predicted the project will be a “disaster.”

“There’s going to be tremendous community opposition,” he said. “People in the neighborhood would not be comfortable with a high-rise N.Y.U. dorm there. The neighborhood is thriving. We don’t need to load up students over there. I’d like to see the school building occupied and fixed up. It’s a beautiful building.”

Sarah Ferguson, a writer who lives a half block from the site’s 10th St. side, said, “There? A dorm? Oh, God.”

Told the project is 23 stories, she said, “Is that taller than the Christadora House? God help me. I think it’s beyond the scale of the neighborhood.”

Ferguson said students have made the neighborhood a party zone on Friday and Saturday nights, and that the project could tip the balance.

“This area has already turned into bar-hopping central,” she said, “and now it’s going to be 23 stories of them. That means Tompkins Sq. is going to be their front lawn…. I think it’s always been inevitable that the universities would try to colonize this area,” Ferguson said, “and they are using this nonprofit to do it. I’m not against students, but the regular people who are down here are going to be overwhelmed by students.”

Ferguson added it would be a shame to lose the 400-seat theater in the old school’s basement, and that as a community facility, any project should include something for the local Puerto Rican community, which is being displaced, such as after-school programs.


NOT HERE TO FIGHT

Yet, while the community may be gearing up for a fight, N.D.C. is not. Marsh stressed they only want to help the community, not fight it, and that, in fact, they won’t fight.

“We can’t be held hostage,” Marsh said. “And if we are held hostage — we’ll just go away. If it just becomes a rallying point for no other reason than people want to make a fight in the neighborhood over it — Life is too short.

“If they just want to yell, they can yell at the next developer,” he said. “The project is what it is. In doing the project, we hope that we can help the neighborhood as well. That’s our goal.”

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