Volume 73, Number 5 | June 2 - 8, 2004

‘Restoration’ of CHARAS building called a facade

By Lincoln Anderson

Villager file photo by Akiko Miyazaki

The former P.S. 64 on E. Ninth St. was home to the CHARAS/El Bohio arts and community center until a few years ago. The owner has filed extensive plans to remove all cast-stone detailing around the windows on all 12 sides of the classic, “H”-shaped, century-old school building.

As the nonprofit group that had been exploring building a 23-story dormitory on E. Ninth St. announced it is pulling out of the project, opponents of the plan recently uncovered a potential new threat: a permit issued for “repairs and restoration” of the facade of the old school building on the site.

Dorm opponents fear the facade work is an effort to block landmarking of the former P.S. 64 — most recently home to charas/El Bohio — so the landlord can demolish it and build the tower. On the other hand, landmarking the existing building is, in part, a strategy to stop the dorm.

Filed by SLCE Architects for 605 E. Ninth St., owned by Gregg Singer, the plans call for removal of almost all the exterior ornamentation — mainly around windows — above the first floor of the five-story, turn-of-the-century building. The Department of Buildings approved the plans on May 5. The applicant began filing the plans in March 2003, meaning the current permit is a renewal, according to D.O.B.

Referring to “work…to be demolished” the plans state the intention to: “Remove existing cast-stone veneer, pediments, keystones and cornices from facade, patch and prep subsurface to receive brick veneer;” and “Remove existing copper fascia/coping edge [along cornice line] and replace with aluminum coping.”

The permit states the cost of the facade demolition as $600,000, which Ilyse Fink, Buildings director of communications, said sounds about right for the amount of work.

Jennifer Givner, a Buildings spokesperson, said a sidewalk construction shed would have to be erected for the exterior work. The building doesn’t fall under Local Law 11, which requires that landlords of buildings over six stories keep their facades safe.

Michael Rosen, of Stop the Dorm/Save Our School, uncovered the plans through his contacts as a former developer. Stop the Dorm has sent thousands of petition signatures — collected over the last month from Tompkins Sq. Park to Avenue D — to Robert Tierney, Landmarks Preservation Commission chairperson, calling for the turn-of-the-century building to be landmarked. S.T.D. opposes the dorm and supports returning the old building to use as a community arts center.

“Clearly, demolition is being done under the guise of renovation,” said Rosen. “Absolutely nothing is being repaired here or restored. This is absolutely the destruction of a New York treasure.”

Rosen called the facade work an “aggressive” tactic that property owners have been known to use in New York City to block preservation attempts.

East Village is landmark deprived

He said the old P.S. 64 building, designed by noted public schools architect Charles B.J. Snyder during the “golden age” of school construction, is worthy of landmarking on its merits. (Snyder was renowned for his distinctive, “H”-shaped school buildings.) Plus, the East Village, which lacks a historic district, has been neglected by Landmarks, Rosen added.

“We’ve looked at [the former] Stuyvesant High School, which is also a Snyder building, and there’s no way that building outshines this building,” Rosen said. “Very, very few things in this neighborhood are landmarked. This neighborhood is very underrepresented in terms of landmarks.”

Andrew Berman, executive director of the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation, said landlords will sometimes make last-minute exterior changes either to try to avoid being included in historic districts or, at least, not have to maintain historic facades. Berman noted that right before the Gansevoort Historic District was designated last year, some Meat Market property owners illegally removed metal canopies.

Singer, the building’s landlord, however, variously claimed to not really know what was going on and that the repairs were being done for “the tenant,” which he doesn’t yet have. He said he couldn’t explain the work in detail, but that his in-house contractor could, but that the contractor isn’t comfortable talking to the press. Meanwhile, Donald Gabbay, of Plaza Construction, listed as the permit applicant, declined comment when called by The Villager.

“That’s something that sounds like the condition of the building,” Singer offered, referring to the facade work permit. “It’s dangerous. Stuff could be falling down. It’s an old building.”

Added Singer, “If the city wanted to landmark it, they would’ve landmarked it a long time ago. They owned it all these years…. I didn’t buy a landmarked building.” (Singer bought the property at auction for $3.125 million five years ago.)

“People can’t afford to renovate the building now — how are they going to afford to renovate it if it’s landmarked?” he asked.

For now, Singer said he is keeping open both options of building “University House at Tompkins Square” — the 700-plus-room student dorm — and finding nonprofit tenants for the existing former public school building.

“Whatever comes first — the dorm or the tenant,” he said. Constructing the dorm depends on state Dormitory Authority bonds being issued through legislation in Albany, which both State Senator Martin Connor and Assemblymember Steve Sanders have said they oppose.

Not taking the bonds rebuff lightly, Singer said he has a local operative, whom he didn’t name, who will “expose” Sanders and Connor.

“We’ll go public — and good luck to them at election time,” Singer warned.

As for tenants, Singer says he’s been unable to find any in five years and that the community ought to help find him one. Yet, Stop the Dorm members contend a dance/spiritual group offered Singer $20 million to buy the building and that, more recently, a dance group offered $40 million. Singer denied knowledge of the offers and reiterated he didn’t buy the building to sell it, but to lease it.

Asked if he would consider scaling back the dorm’s size, Singer said he did that six months ago, reducing it from 27 to 23 stories, which he said is the ideal height for the project to work and can’t be lower.

As usual, Singer blasted and belittled his opponents, calling Councilmember Margarita Lopez “a fraud,” the information on Stop the Dorm’s Web site “made up,” CHARAS, the arts organization he evicted from 605 E. Ninth St. over two years ago, “just a name — there is no such thing,” and Susan Howard, of Save CHARAS “a joke.”

Asked if he was still working with the nonprofit group National Development Council on developing the dorm, Singer didn’t say that their relationship was ended.

“N.D.C. want the community to meet with them — and if the community doesn’t want to meet with them, they don’t know what to do,” Singer stated.

N.D.C.: We’re outta here

However, speaking May 25, Daniel Marsh, of N.D.C., said they are no longer working with Singer on the dorm and have given up trying to reach out to the community to devise an alternative project for the site. Marsh said the community clearly didn’t want to hear from them — and that East Villagers’ angry opposition left N.D.C. reeling. In short, they’ve thrown in the towel.

“We never had made a decision to move ahead with the project,” Marsh said. “And when things got out of hand we decided not to proceed. There were so many discussions and fabrications on Web sites that were not true…. We can only stand so much. We entered our process with good intentions and before we even had a chance to talk to anyone we were maligned. Our involvement was not going to be received very well, in our mind.”

Asked when N.D.C. decided to pull out, Marsh said, it was three weeks ago, “about the time the community was making fun of our chairman [Samuel Beard] and maligning him.”

He said, N.D.C. will move on to other projects they’re working on, like building a new magnet school in Hartford.

Councilmember Lopez noted she had had a meeting scheduled last Monday with Marsh, but he cancelled.

Eric Lugo, Lopez’s chief of staff, who spoke with N.D.C. about the cancellation, said he understood they had backed out of the project.

“They got hit so hard on the dormitory thing that they don’t want to do anything,” he said.

But while N.D.C. may be gone, Singer’s still around.

“One more time I am in disbelief at the attempt to destroy this historical building,” said Lopez, of the facade-demolition plans. “First he buys this building, even though it was for community use. Now he tries to destroy the value of the building.”

Lopez conveyed to Buildings Commissioner Patricia Lancaster that she feels it’s illegal for Singer to get a permit to demolish the facade when the building is being considered for landmark status.

“This is outrageous — the Buildings Department is not seeing clearly what this is about,” Lopez told The Villager.

However, D.O.B. spokespersons said if the building isn’t landmarked or calendared for a hearing before the Landmarks Preservation Commission they can’t stop the permit being issued or the work being done.

Asked where the request for designating 605 E. Ninth St. a city landmark stood, Diane Jackier, Landmarks’ spokesperson, said, “We received a request for evaluation and this is under review.” Asked if there were instances when an emergency stop-work order could be put on a potential landmark, Jackier said she was only giving the one comment.

Stop the Dorm has been holding meetings, closed to the press, at Two Boots Video/Den of Cin on Avenue A to come up with a plan for reusing the existing P.S. 64 building.

At its full board meeting on May 24, Community Board 3 passed the following resolution regarding the “CHARAS site/University House development”: “1) To strongly support the designation of the Beaux-Arts building at 605 E. Ninth St. a landmark; 2) to, once again, condemn the underhanded disposition of the building [by the city] to Gregg Singer, which has endangered its use as a community facility, and 3) to observe that the ramp constructed at the building is a paradigm of handicap construction.”

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