Volume 73, Number 54 | May 12 - 18, 2004

‘Dead dorm’ is abruptly pulled from meeting

By Lincoln Anderson

Villager photo by Milo Hess

Michael Rosen, a leader of Stop the Dorm/Save Our School, collected petitions in Tompkins Sq. Park.

In the face of mounting community opposition, a plan for a 23-story dormitory on E. Ninth St. on the site of the former CHARAS/El Bohio cultural and community center was suddenly pulled last week from the agenda of Community Board 3’s May 13 Housing, Land Use, Zoning and NYCHA Committee.

The proposed project’s developer, Gregg Singer, said he never planned to go to the Board 3 meeting and thought the director of the nonprofit organization he has brought in to develop the dormitory was going to go. Meanwhile, Daniel Marsh, president of National Development Council Housing and Economic Development Corporation, said he always had planned to just send a statement to the meeting and thought Singer would attend. (The project is as of right, meaning it needs no special variances or

zoning changes, and so does not require Board 3’s approval.)

At any rate, the dormitory project as construed a month ago appears now to be in a shambles, and that suits many in the community just fine.

In fact, Marsh last week told The Villager the dorm is now “dead” as far as they’re concerned.

“We advised Gregg that his concept of the project in our estimation is not a project — it’s dead,” Marsh said. “I can categorically state, that building is not going to get built by us.”

A few days before the plan disappeared from C.B. 3’s agenda, Singer, in an interview with The Villager, had lashed out at Councilmember Margarita Lopez and Board 3, accusing them of frustrating his efforts to develop the old P.S. 64 building on the site, leaving him no choice but to resort to the mega-dorm project.

“For five years, we’ve been trying to get nonprofits in there, and Community Board 3 and Margarita Lopez block it,” he said. “Every time we had someone interested, they approached Margarita and the community board and were told, ‘You’re not wanted here.’ The reason there’s a dorm planned is because of Margarita Lopez.

“Margarita’s been telling the nonprofits not to come because she’s going to deny funding,” Singer fumed.

After buying the turn-of-the-century school building for $3.15 million in 1998, Singer has tried unsuccessfully to lease space to nonprofit tenants allowed under the property’s community-use deed restriction. He claims he’s written “100s and 100s of letters to nonprofits.”

In the past, he’s mentioned schools, senior day care centers and facilities for the developmentally disabled as potential tenants, yet always withheld the organizations’ names, claiming they would be harassed by East Village activists who opposed CHARAS’s eviction.

“I’d love to save the building,” he said. “But give me a tenant that can afford the renovation and pay the rent.” Again, he accused Lopez of scaring off potential tenants who wanted to renovate the building, by saying she’d block funding.

Singer figures renovation costs for the building, once estimated at $12 million, have risen to $15 million.

According to him, the dormitory has to be constructed in its wide and narrow shape and 23 stories high because of building regulations, since every habitable room must have a window. At that height, however, it would block the eastern views of the 16-story Christadora House condo tower next door. But Singer said the condo owners shouldn’t complain.

“It’s legal,” he said of the height. “It’s 32 feet from the Christadora House. We could build right at their property line. They should be happy.”

Could be 40 stories
“It could be 40 stories,” he continued. “There’s going to be more light and open air than there is now” if the dorm is built, he claimed. “If you go to Avenue C, you’ve got 23-story buildings all around. It’s a half block away and they make a big deal.”

The reason the building isn’t planned even taller is because it would not be as efficient, according to the developer. “This is the smallest it can be and still make sense,” he said.

Singer denied suspicions of a scheme to eventually convert the dorm, if built, into a market-rate residential building.

“The law says you can’t do that,” he said, “and if you looked at the plan, you’d see these are very small units and designed for students.”

The plan was that National Development Council would seek tax-exempt Dormitory Authority bonds for the $100 million project.

However, Assemblymember Sanders and State Senator Connor, who both represent the district, say they won’t support legislation authorizing the bonds if Lopez, the local councilmember — who has a passionate commitment to the displaced CHARAS and wants to see the building returned to the community — is opposed.

“These guys — they’re not interested in helping the community,” Singer charged. “I think Sanders was part of the Education Committee…. He doesn’t want to help kids go to school and have housing?”

Of CHARAS, which he evicted from the building two years ago and which now offers computer training and English as a Second Language courses out of an East Harlem loft, Singer said, “They’re like a joke. It’s like they don’t exist. CHARAS is a bogus group. I asked everyone what they do, and no one knows.”

Told that Lopez, the new Stop the Dorm/Save Our School organization and the Save CHARAS activists all want the building “returned to the community” for cultural, art and nonprofit uses, Singer said they have to offer a real proposal.

“What does the community want? They haven’t come forward to say what they want,” he said. “They’ve got to come up with a financial plan that makes sense. Somebody in this world has to be realistic.”

Although last year Singer told The Villager he might consider selling the property, though would prefer to lease it, with the new dorm project he’s now backed off those statements.

“I don’t want to sell it,” he said. “I want to lease it, and I’m not selling it to anyone who doesn’t have any money.”

Singer planned to lease the dorm to N.D.C. for 50 to 60 years, after which the landlord would gain possession of the property.

Singer said there are dozens of other nonprofits that do student housing that would potentially be interested in the project.

“They were the best one,” he said of N.D.C., “the most community oriented. If N.D.C. backs out, we’ll go to another student dorm group. There’s a major student housing shortage in New York. This is something that’s good for New York.”

So far, no local universities have expressed interest. But Singer remained confident, saying, “I think first it’s got to get funding. And then the students will come.”

‘Just want to help’
Meanwhile, N.D.C.’s Marsh now is trying to put distance between his group and the dorm project and Singer. Two weeks ago he stressed that his board had not made a decision on whether to undertake the project and that N.D.C. was still in the phase of doing “due diligence” to see if the project was feasible and something that they want to do.

After The Villager reported the dorm story last month, Marsh said he was “worn out” by an e-mail and phone blitz from the project’s opponents, not to mention calls from media.

“I’ve been inundated with threats and obnoxious e-mails. People have tried to interrupt my business. It’s been a terrible experience, very disheartening,” he said of the e-mail blitz, noting he received about 40 on his own computer, alone.

Marsh reiterated N.D.C. believes there is a need for student housing Downtown. Yet, he stressed it was Singer who reached out to them, and that it was Singer, in fact, and his architect who designed the towering dorm.

“It’s not our project,” Marsh said. “It’s an idea proposed by a developer. He had designed this building long ago and approached nonprofits — and we were one of them. Gregg wanted to see if he could use the property for dormitory use [and] he contacted us — and others too — and we said we’d look at it. All we were doing was looking at the site and saying what can we do there? — whether it was Gregg’s project or something else.”

Marsh said N.D.C. now sees an opportunity — if people can somehow manage to put aside the image of the 23-story dorm and start over — to work with the community to come up with plans for the property and then try to get Singer to accept them.

Economics are, of course, a major part of any project, but Marsh stressed, “We will never do [this project] unless we have discussions with the community on what will be best for the community. If the community is willing to work with us, we’ll help. If not — we’ll just fade into the background. Right now, we feel if a project goes on that site, it’s going to require a very, very open and frank dialogue with the community about how it can be done. I view us as a link that may get the community what they need and want on that site. Our mission is to work with communities like this.”

Marsh said it’s clear there’s a desire for a community space in whatever happens at the site. He said maybe the existing building could be kept, with a community space and possibly even CHARAS, but that without developing the air rights above the building — for which he feels market-rate dorm rooms make the most sense, or possibly senior housing — it would produce little revenue. Otherwise, in his view, it will require cobbling together grant and foundation money to renovate and operate the building.

Marsh said N.D.C. really didn’t know what they were getting into and, for example, had no gauge of the lingering fallout over CHARAS/El Bohio’s eviction, when they agreed to explore the dorm project with Singer.

He said they’ve since reached out to CHARAS but were rebuffed.

“If we are to develop something on the site, we have to be viewed differently than Gregg Singer,” Marsh emphasized. “One thing is clear, there is a very hostile feeling to him in the community. But should we move forward with the project, it is no longer Gregg Singer’s project; it is our project.”

In a way, he said he’s glad at the strong feelings the dorm proposal aroused.

“I think it’s great,” he said. “They obviously have a real passion about what happens in their neighborhood.

However, he added of the existing building, “Right now, that building’s a blight on the neighborhood. I feel bad that there’s something there that the community has no control over that they feel strongly about. But if it’s just a situation of trying to block moves by the developer, that’s not doing any good either.”

‘Elephant’ won’t fly
Told of Singer’s accusing her of allegedly forcing him to develop a dorm, Lopez laughed heartily and said it was the best joke she’d heard all day. She said it’s not that she’s been blocking nonprofits from trying to lease space, but that Singer has tried to bring in nonconforming uses, such as, a Banana Bungalow youth hostel a few years ago, and that the community, naturally, must fight these proposed uses.

Lopez said the dorm is not, in her opinion, a community use because it would serve people from outside the city, as opposed to from the community. (A Department of Buildings spokesperson previously said a dorm does qualify as a community use, but that the department would have to review the plans before ruling definitively.)

Regardless, Lopez said, Singer will never be able to carry out his plans.

“Until he sells that building back to the community he will have a white elephant in the middle of the Lower East Side,” she warned. “He’s not entitled to make a profit with that building. That building belongs to us, because we nurtured it, we saved it. That’s the fundamental problem here — he does not understand.”

Lopez said she did get a letter from N.D.C. requesting a meeting. However, she said, she was displeased at receiving it after the story broke, feeling she should have been contacted before. Nevertheless, she said she will meet with N.D.C. in the hopes of talking about restoring the old P.S. 64 as a community and arts center.

Bonds not a hit
Both Sanders and Connor told The Villager they won’t support Dormitory Authority bonds for the building, meaning there likely will be no bill, which is needed to issue the bonds.

“I think there is no project,” said Sanders. “I have communicated to all involved that for me to support the legislation for the bonding that is necessary, there would have to be three circumstances present: Community Board 3 and Margarita Lopez — who has a historic leadership role in this that I respect enormously — would have to support it and there would have to be a component for CHARAS.

“There are also issues about the size and use of the building. I’ve communicated that to the developer, N.D.C., and I think N.D.C. understands this is not going to go forward in its present form,” said Sanders.

Said Connor, “It’s astounding to me — the guy needs legislation and he hasn’t talked to me or Steve. The community’s against it. Does he think he’s wired or something with Pataki? I don’t see this flying at all, certainly not if it needs legislation.

“None of the schools around here seem to need the dormitory,” Connor continued. “I don’t think that’s an appropriate site or an appropriate project. They bought the building, but they should talk to the community to see if they can come up with something the community can become more supportive of.”

Dorm as a unifier
Leaders of the new Stop the Dorm/Save Our School group mostly live along Avenue B near the proposed dorm site. S.T.D./S.O.S. supports the old P.S. 64 being landmarked and returned to community use as an arts and cultural center. They have collected thousands of petition signatures the last three weekends in Tompkins Sq. Park.

Michael Rosen, who lives in Christadora House and developed Red Square on E. Houston St. in the late 1980s as well as some shelters in the neighborhood, said the primary fear is that a dorm of this size could cause the East Village to become a “strip mall,” such as on Third Ave. where N.Y.U. dorms and a Cooper Union dorm are surrounded by generic chain stores like Pizzeria Uno and Starbucks.

The Christadora House is well known for its spectacular views. Asked if the threat of losing his had factored into his opposition to the dorm, Rosen said, “It would be disingenuous of me to say that blocking views doesn’t have an impact — because obviously it does. But you can always move somewhere with a view. You can’t always move to somewhere with the beauty and the soul of this neighborhood. That’s irreplaceable. Once that’s broken, it can’t be replaced again.”

As a former developer, he added the apartments in Singer’s dorm design appear to have standard “S.L.C.E.” layouts — typical for one-bedroom apartments — and suspects they would at some point be converted to market-rate condominiums.

Ironically, when Christadora House, originally built as a “skyscraper settlement house,” was converted to condos in the mid-1980s, it became a symbol of anti-gentrification backlash. Documentary photography and filmmaker Clayton Patterson’s video of the 1988 Tompkins Sq. Park riot ends with people throwing plants and police barricades into Christadora’s lobby while yelling threats about “yuppies.”

Now the Christadora residents and community find themselves fighting the same battle.

“What happened is the neighborhood changed,” said Patterson. “And now we’re living in a different world. These people are as much a part of the neighborhood as anyone else.”

Roland Legiardi-Laura, a director of the Nuyorican Poets Cafe, said preserving the East Village’s mix is what Stop the Dorm/Save Our School is all about.

“This community is everything to me,” he said. “It has a profoundly creative mix, from the poor to the relatively well off, ethnically, racially. It has fed my work. We seem to always be at a tipping point, but we’re at a particularly delicate tipping point. This,” he said of the dorm, “would tip the balance.”

Asked if Stop the Dorm would meet with N.D.C. to discuss ideas for the site, Rosen said, “Our sitting with N.D.C. would have to be part of a community effort and community agreement that is also satisfactory to our friends in CHARAS and the Save CHARAS Committee.”

Rosen added, “I think it’s absolutely critical for Mr. Singer to recognize that that building be returned and sold back to the community — there is absolutely no goodwill.”

Added Susan Howard, of Save CHARAS, “Singer bankrupted this community by taking that community center away from us. Now he should be bankrupted by this building.”

For his part, Singer said he’d in fact be more than happy if N.D.C. meets with the community and comes back to him with an idea for the property.

“Let them come up with an idea,” Singer said, adding, “We’ve always been willing to work with the community, but there’s nobody there.”

However, working with the community only extends so far. Told Lopez, Save CHARAS and Stop the Dorm want him to sell the building back to the community at a small profit, he retorted, “They should jump out [of] the building.”

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