Volume 74, Number 25 | Octuber 20 - 26 , 2004

Villager photos by Elisabeth Robert

Councilmember Margarita Lopez with Tamara Oliveras, 8, who suggested the former P.S. 64 could have space for a boys and girls club

Community brainstorms for reuse of CHARAS building

By Albert Amateau

Neighbors had plenty of suggestions about what to do with the old P.S. 64 building on E. Ninth St., former home of the CHARAS/El Bohio arts and community center, at a forum conducted last week by City Councilmember Margarita Lopez.

All the suggestions revolved around getting the building back from Gregg Singer, the developer who bought it at public auction from the city in 1998 for $3.15 million and who has repeatedly declared he intends to hold onto it. And none of the suggestions included Singer’s proposal for a 23-story dormitory on the property east of Avenue B.

But Lopez told the more than 100 neighbors at the Oct. 12 forum that she would include their suggestions in a unified plan, including financing, to preserve the existing building for the community and present it to Mayor Bloomberg.

“The task is doable, but if we don’t speak with one voice we’ll lose CHARAS a second time,” Lopez said.

Assemblymember Steve Sanders, a co-sponsor of the forum, recalled that he and State Senator Martin Connor said “no” when Singer came to Albany in April for support on an application to the State Dormitory Authority for financing in connection with a joint venture with New York University. Contrary to Sanders’ statement, however, N.Y.U. has consistently denied any involvement or interest in the dorm project.

“We will not settle for anything less than what the community always wanted,” Sanders said. “We will honor the memory of Armando Perez,” he added, referring to the former East Village Democratic district leader and founder of CHARAS/El Bohio who was murdered more than four years ago. “We are not going to sell the building out from under the community and we’re going to fight for as long as it takes to make this happen,” said Sanders.

Connor was represented at the forum by his aide, Matt Viggiano, and Melissa Maldonado represented Congressmember Nydia Velazquez. Rosie Mendez and Anthony Feliciano, Democratic co-district leaders, also spoke about preserving CHARAS.

Lopez, who said that former Mayor Giuliani “stole the building by putting it on the auction block,” added that she has worked with Mayor Bloomberg on many issues. “I can tell you that Mayor Bloomberg will be more sympathetic than Giuliani was,” she said, adding that she was confident that a combination of government, nonprofit and private funds could be found to buy the building back from Singer, who did not attend the Oct. 12 forum.

Among the suggestions was one from Eric Rossi, who said that the terrace above the building’s 300-seat auditorium might be leased to a commercial operator for a rooftop outdoor restaurant.

But Susan Howard, a founder of the Save CHARAS Committee, said the nonprofit groups evicted from the center should be the first to return to the building when it reopens. She said she was very concerned about suggestions that millions of dollars would have to be spent. “CHARAS was built with sweat equity,” she said. “We can’t forget the people who fought to save the building.” Howard believes that Singer is in default of his commitment to redevelop the building as a community center

Barbara Caporale also urged that the community groups evicted from CHARAS when the building was sold should take part in the decisions about how the building should be used.

Frank Morales, assistant pastor of St. Marks-Church-in-the-Bowery, said he believed that CHARAS faces immanent demolition. “They’ll come at 2 a.m. and take it down,” he predicted, and called for direct action. “Let’s let them know we’re willing to seize that building and let’s be ready for civil disobedience,” Morales said, inviting the audience to a 7 p.m. Oct. 20 meeting about CHARAS at St. Marks.

Lopez, however, said the building was not in immediate danger of demolition and said advocates for the building should not divide themselves. “We must unify the struggle under one banner,” she said. Lopez called for e-mail messages about CHARAS to be sent to her aide, Eric Lugo at eric.lugo@council.nyc.ny.us or by mail to her district office at 237 First Ave., 10003. Lopez is also part of the effort to have the building designated a city landmark, but she insisted that landmarking was just one strategy to save the building.

Among ideas offered for reuse of the existing building, Paul Garrin, a resident of E. Seventh St., thought that grants from media producers could help start local Internet program developers and even studios to produce content for local television programs.

William Arroyo, an East Village resident for 50 years who has been involved with the city school system for more than 20 years, said he has seen the gentrification of the neighborhood and predicted that “the yuppies who have been moving here will have families and will need a school for their kids.”

Jodie Oberfelder, a choreographer who lost her studio when the city decided to sell the former CHARAS building, urged that any plans include studio space for small arts groups. Alexandra Akira, a vice president of C.B. Richard Ellis and a specialist in finding affordable space for nonprofit groups, told the forum that it was important to have a sustainable financial plan and promised to help.

Tamara Oliveras, 8, wanted the old school building to have space for a boys and girls club for after-school activities. Lopez reminded her that the new office of the Lower East Side Girl’s Club has already opened in the neighborhood.

In a phone interview later, Singer said Lopez has refused to meet with him to discuss plans “for a real community center.” Singer said he’d like to reuse the building or a portion of it. “You need legitimate tenants that can pay rent,” he said. He also said that plans for a dormitory tower on part of the property would comply with the community facility restrictions imposed by the city.

Lopez, however, said Singer’s definition of “community facility” may come from zoning regulations but when the former Board of Estimate disposed of the property to CHARAS, “community facility” meant that the building was to be for the community that exists in the neighborhood. “It does not mean a dormitory for students who may come from California, or a Banana Bungalow hostel,” Lopez said. She also denied Singer’s charge that she threatened nonprofits with cutting off funding if they dealt with Singer.

Lopez also insisted that she and Sanders reached out to Singer to see if he would consider selling the building back to the community, but he said “no” and rebuffed any further talks.

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