Volume 74, Number 20 | September 22 - 28 , 2004

Developer is retooling dorm design for CHARAS site

By Lincoln Anderson

Villager photo by Lincoln Anderson
Boring for soil samples on E. Ninth St. at Avenue B last Friday.
The megadorm on E. Ninth St. isn’t dead, not yet, at least. Developer Gregg Singer plans to have architects come up with a new design for a dormitory at the site of the former CHARAS/El Bohio arts and community center.

The last design, a 23-story tower that The Villager first reported on in March, was met with a storm of community opposition. Save CHARAS activists as well as condo owners from the adjacent Christodora House were up in arms at the prospect of the 700-to-800-bed university residence.

Last Friday, Singer was at the location, a former school building, the old P.S. 64, just east of Tompkins Sq. Park, as a pair of workers were drilling to gather soil samples for testing in an environmental lab.

“We’re going to build a building,” he said.

Singer said he’s exploring the possibility of keeping the existing building and using the property’s 110,000 sq. ft. of air rights to build a tower above it. However, the piles on which the school building sits cannot support additional weight, and new piles will be needed, which is why the test boring — 18 holes in all — is being done. On 10th St., his workers struck bedrock at 55 ft., he noted.

“It’s not our goal to knock down the building — it’s to develop it into a productive asset,” he said. “People should realize — if we wanted to knock this building down, we would have done it a long time ago. Wouldn’t it be great to save it? We always wanted to save it.”

Singer said he and his architects are “playing with” the design right now to see where the tower will be located, whether its base can fit in the school building’s 10th St. courtyard or must partly extend over its roof. Singer said, either way, less of the Christodora House’s eastern views would be blocked than in the previous design; before, the plan was for the dorm’s southern wall to be located a few feet in front of the old school’s front door.

The tower would be set back 32 ft. from the condo owners’ windows, plenty of room in Singer’s opinion, since by law he could build right against Christodora’s lot-line windows.

“They’re rich people who don’t want me to block their windows,” he said. “If they want, let them go to Iowa.”

The last design wasn’t set in stone, he said, adding it cost just $25,000 to do, not some astronomical figure as some activists may have wished.

Singer has permits to remove the terra cotta detailing on the building’s exterior. He said the terracotta is waterlogged and cracked, making it a danger of falling and injuring someone. But he showed some samples of copper flashing that could be used to replace the copper on the old building’s roof.

Singer said he expects a lawsuit from the new East Village Community Coalition,, some of whose leaders live in Christodora House, which formed to fight the dorm.

“It happens to every big development in the city, Trump, AOL/Time Warner,” he said, adding a lawsuit would slow things down, but not stop him.

E.V.C.C. is lobbying the Landmarks Preservation Commission to landmark the old P.S. 64, which Singer bought for a bargain, $3.15 million, in 1998.

“I’d be surprised if the city of New York operates in a bait-and-switch manner,” he said, contending that if the building were to be landmarked now, it would deprive him of future income. “They’d have to pay through the nose. Think of the precedent that sets for people buying properties at auction.”

For now, Singer said, the plan is for the new building as well as existing building, if kept, to be 100 percent dormitory. He says focus studies have shown affordable housing is one of students’ top requests. It doesn’t matter that area universities such as New York University and New School University haven’t expressed interest, he said, because he knows the need exists.

“There is a 42,000-bed shortfall for students in New York City,” he claimed.

Even though National Development Council was scared off by the opposition and dropped plans to build and then lease the dorm long term, Singer said it won’t be hard to find other nonprofit organizations to work with. “There’s hundreds of guys,” he said. “Everyone wants to do it — those guys [N.D.C.] were the best.”

The property carries a deed restriction for use as a community-use facility. Singer said earlier efforts to get nonprofit organizations as tenants failed. As he has done before, he accused Councilmember Margarita Lopez of warning nonprofits that she would block government funding for them if they worked with Singer.

Singer said groups that were once interested included Amsterdam senior housing, Stella Adler dance, CitiKids afterschool programs and a local nonprofit that would probably not admit it publicly.

Lopez has denied that she warned nonprofits she’d work to deny them funding.

“I think it would be great to have an arts center here,” Singer said, “but no one has come forward. Come up with an idea — I’ve been open to ideas the whole time. But it has to work financially.”

Lopez, Save CHARAS and E.V.C.C. want him to give up control of the property and return it to the community as an arts and educational center. “Who are they kidding?” Singer said. “It’s never going to happen. Unless the city takes it back — then they have to pay fair market value.

“I love my work. This is what I do,” he said, noting his specialty is fixing up properties.

Meanwhile, E.V.C.C. has been assembling its strategy. The group is planning to hold letter-writing mixers at which participants will write to the Bloomberg administration about landmarking the old P.S. 64 as well as to voters in swing states, urging them to vote for John Kerry. A 150-person march and rally at City Hall is also in the works. And Lopez will host a town hall meeting about the future of the old P.S. 64/CHARAS building on Oct. 12 at P.S. 34, 730 E. 12th St. and Avenue D, from 6:30 p.m.-8:30 p.m. E.V.C.C.’s benefit at Angel Orensanz Foundation has been postponed.

Michael Rosen, a member of E.V.C.C.’s Steering Committee, said, at this point, community outreach seemed a better step than the fundraiser.

“The community forum is very important,” he said, “so they can’t say it’s just a bunch of rich people.”

Asked to comment on the dorm’s being designed, Rosen said, “I have not seen any schematics. I have nothing to endorse but Margarita’s line, which is that the building was bought with a deed restriction for community use and that a dorm with students not from the community is not a benefit to the community. There might be an economic advantage for [Singer] for a building like that, but dormitories far from campus don’t create communities and are hurtful to students. Particularly dormitories that have no affiliation with any university are just warehouses. It’s hurtful to the social fabric and economy of the neighborhood, because it turns it into a transient neighborhood. Jane Jacobs talks about that — neighborhoods are not supposed to be transient.”

Lopez said the dorm won’t get built on her watch.

“I’m happy for him — every human being is entitled to dream,” she said of Singer’s insistence that he will build on the site. “I think it’s time for the community to put forward its ideas for this building. The building belongs to the people of this community.”

Susan Howard of the Save CHARAS Committee said they had also been wanting to have a town hall on the old P.S. 64, and were surprised to find one had been scheduled without checking with them first to see if their members could attend.

“The Save CHARAS Committee knew nothing about this meeting,” she said. “And then to find out through the grapevine, it’s really frustrating.”

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