Volume 74, Number 29 | November 24 - 30, 2004

A view from 10th St. across Avenue B of the proposed 222-room dorm. The 10th St. side of the existing former school building would be demolished for the project.

Son of towering dorm:19 stories at CHARAS site

By Lincoln Anderson

In an apparent effort to curry favor with those who want the old P.S. 64 school building landmarked, developer Gregg Singer commissioned an architectural firm known for historical renovations to do a new design that preserves at least part of the turn-of-the-century building.

Like Singer’s initial plan for a 23-story dormitory tower — first reported by The Villager in April — the new design, as before, called University House at Tompkins Sq., also includes a tall tower. Filed last month, the new plans call for a 19-story tower set on the site’s 10th St. side, where that portion of the old “H”-style school building would be demolished. The old school building’s Ninth St. facade would be preserved and incorporated into the dormitory.

The new tower would be equal in height to the 16-story Christodora House condo apartment building just to the west. In September, Singer told The Villager that the redesign would be set back more toward 10th St. in order to block less of the views of Christodora tenants.

The previous 23-story design, by S.L.C.E., would have kept none of the old P.S. 64, most recently home to the former CHARAS/El Bohio community and cultural center. That design was roundly condemned by community members and local politicians as too tall and inappropriate for the site.

Richard Blinder, a principal in the firm of Beyer Blinder Belle Architects and Planners, said Singer contacted them about six months ago.

“He called saying he had to deal with a potential landmarks issue,” said Blinder, who is responsible for the redesign. “But at this point,” Blinder added, “this is not a landmarked building, we don’t think it’s going to be a landmark and we’re doing everything to restore the Ninth St. facade.”

The plan calls for 222 dormitory units, as well as facilities to support the students, including a laundry room, recreation room, meeting rooms and study rooms, plus a 45-car underground garage. Blinder said he couldn’t say how many students would be housed in the dorm rooms, as the number of beds has not yet been set. There would be three elevators.

“We all think it’s a good proposal,” said Blinder. “We responded to some of the concerns that we’ve heard about. We know there’s community opposition. We’ve responded to that part of it we think is possible to respond to.”

However, Blinder added, just keeping the existing building without adding the new tower wouldn’t work because it wouldn’t contain enough dorm rooms. He also said the old building couldn’t physically support the tower.

Blinder compared the design to what was done when the Helmsley hotel was added above the landmarked Villard Houses at 50th St. and Madison Ave. He said the old P.S. 64’s Ninth St. facade “will be kept to look very much as it does today” — though adding that “that terrible, horrible, winding [handicapped-disabled] ramp,” would be removed. A small handicapped lift would be added instead. Otherwise, the entry stairs and plaza on the Ninth St. side would be kept.

Blinder said they presented the plan to the Landmarks Preservation Commission, though L.P.C. approval isn’t required.

“They thought it was thoughtfully done,” he said. He added that the design of the top of the tower is modern yet includes a mansard roof and that the tower is in three column-like sections to mirror the old school’s design.

The building will make use of the community facilities zoning allowance, which is exploited by nonprofit developers to add bulk. As a result, the building would be “substantially more than what you could build as a residential building,” he said.

He said he feels the new building would improve the 10th St. side of the property by opening it up with windows to student spaces and study rooms. The current school building with its wall on 10th St. “turns its back on the community,” Blinder feels.

Blinder said the plan is for there to be about 45 dorm rooms packed into the sides and front of the “C” left when the back of the “H” building is demolished. These rooms would have 15-ft.-tall ceilings, while the rest of the dorm rooms would have lower ceilings.

Based in the Village on University Pl., Beyer Blinder Belle restored Grand Central Terminal and Ellis Island. The firm’s latest project is to restore the U.S. Capitol. Their earliest work was as consultants to Community Board 2, for which they did studies of the waterfront and far West Village and during which they met legendary activists like Jane Jacobs, Tony Dapolito and Ruth Wittenberg.

“We have longstanding connections to the Village,” Blinder said. “We consider Jane Jacobs to be one of our mentors.”

Asked if the firm was worried about backlash for getting involved with the contentious project — and told that one prominent public relations firm previously dropped Singer as a client feeling the issue was too hot to handle — Blinder said of the developer, “I don’t know what he was like when he started the process — but I think he’s tempered where he was.”

As he did in April, Singer let someone else do most of the initial explanation of the new project. Back then it was Daniel Marsh, president of National Development Council — a nonprofit developer Singer hoped to have build and run the dorm with a long-term lease. N.D.C. ultimately backed out in the face of community pressure.

However, Singer did answer a few questions from The Villager via his wireless BlackBerry. Asked how he would finance the project, Singer said he would try again for New York State Dormitory Authority bonds — even though both Assemblymember Steve Sanders and State Senator Martin Connor previously said they would not support the required bonding legislation.

“The best financing for the schools would be bonds issued by the N.Y.S. Dormitory Authority,” Singer said. “They understand the severe shortage of dorms in N.Y.C. and are interested in helping students in having affordable housing.”

Asked about the project’s cost, Singer replied, “No price.”

Asked if a nonprofit organization would be operating the building, Singer said: “It would not be appropriate to discuss the tenancy or operation.”

However, a new 13-story building being constructed at 81 E. Third St. has recently called attention to the requirement for developers to have a lease in place when they submit plans calling for community facility space. Plans submitted for that building called for it to be half dormitory, yet on closer inspection, the Department of Buildings found there was no lease in place. The developer was given a month extension to respond — yet the 13 stories of steel were put up in a flash in just a month.

Yet, Singer contends his case is different and that he doesn’t need to have a lease in place.

“That’s typical of residential zoning whereby an owner wants to increase his amount of square feet by utilizing a community facility use,” he said. “That’s not our situation.”

It was not conclusive by press time whether Singer is right or wrong on this point.

In addition, Singer said of the dorm project: “The community board approved this use a long time ago. In recent years the community board has not been interested in discussing this or any project at this location.”

Speaking last week, Jennifer Givner, a Buildings spokesperson, said the new design plans were submitted to a planning examiner on Oct. 26. As for how the project benefits from the community facilities allowance and whether a tenant must be in place to get this allowance, Givner said, “I think we’ll have to look at this when we actually review the plans. I don’t want to speculate. Basically, it’s a 19-story building. It’s likely to be a tedious process, a lengthy review,” she added.

As The Villager was going to press Monday (a day earlier due to a printer’s date for Thanksgiving) Givner was not available for follow-up questions on whether a tenant must be in place for the dorm to qualify for the community facilities allowance or to allow it to be built in the first place.

John Beckman, a New York University spokesperson, said the school isn’t interested in the dorm.

“We are not involved in the project,” Beckman said. “We have said ‘no’ every time the developer has approached us. He has not approached us recently. We are unaware of any new plans.”

Those who opposed the previous incarnation of the student dormitory are equally against the latest design. Local elected officials, the East Village Community Coalition and Community Board 3 all support restoring the building and using it as a community, cultural and educational center.

“Here we go again,” said Councilmember Margarita Lopez, sounding exasperated. “I don’t know how to make clear that proposals like that do not fulfill the needs that this community has. It shows the only purpose that this man has is to make money. This community has a lot of needs — and that building doesn’t fulfill any of them. It’s sickening.”

Told the dorm has a garage, Lopez said it sounds more appropriate for a residential building.

“This is the first time I have seen a residence for students with a garage for 40 cars,” she noted. “Perhaps this is a Trojan horse — and he thinks that we don’t know Greek mythology.”

Michael Rosen, a founding member of Save Our School/Stop the Dorm and the East Village Community Coalition, was also disappointed by the latest proposal.

“We knew that they were talking to Beyer Blinder Belle,” Rosen said, adding that community pressure must have pushed Singer to pick the firm known for historically sensitive projects.

Yet, Rosen said, “Beyer Blinder Belle is willing to support destroying part of the sanctity of this building.” Rosen said E.V.C.C. met with the firm, but Blinder said he had no knowledge of such a meeting. “We discussed with them the importance of this building to the neighborhood,” Rosen said.

E.V.C.C. is leading the effort to landmark the old building, designed by legendary schools architect B.J. Snyder and the place where Yip Harburg, who wrote “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” was educated and where Elizabeth Irwin first tested her revolutionary theories on learning.

Rosen thinks Singer can make a fine profit without a tower, especially since Singer bought the 135,000-sq.-ft. building for a low price of $3.15 million. The property has 110,000 sq. ft. of air rights.

“Mr. Singer could make a lot on this property as an arts and cultural center,” Rosen said.

If Landmarks doesn’t designate the building, allowing part of it to be destroyed for Singer’s new plan, Rosen said, “It would really be an abandonment of their responsibilities and a betrayal of the citizens of New York.”

Rosen is unconvinced by Singer’s claim that he doesn’t need to have a tenant in place to get the community facilities allowance. David McWater, chairperson of Community Board 3, is similarly skeptical.

“I don’t claim to be the expert, but as I understand it, you’ve got to have a tenant in place,” said McWater. As for Singer’s saying that the board has supported a dorm on the site, McWater said, “I’m pretty sure when the newspaper story broke [about the 23-story dorm in The Villager in April], I’m sure we passed a resolution against it. I don’t recall Community Board 3 ever being in favor of a dorm there.”

Andrew Berman, director of the Greenwich Village Society for Historical Preservation, disapproved of the new design, noting, “I would say that taking a four-or-five-story building and sticking a 19-story building on top is not my idea of preservation.”

Assemblymember Sanders, who represents the district in the State Legislature, said nothing has changed and that there’s no way he would support legislation for Dormitory Authority bonds for University House.

“In four words — not going to happen,” he said. “Evidently, Mr. Singer hasn’t learned a darn thing. If he had been paying attention, he would have learned by now that he can’t make these decisions without consulting with the community, local elected officials and other community groups.”

Sanders added he is certain State Senator Martin Connor would not approve a bonding bill in the State Senate, either.

“In the Thanksgiving vernacular,” Sanders said, “this turkey ain’t gonna fly.”

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