Volume 74, Number 31 | December 08 - 14, 2004

Villager photo by Elisabeth Robert

From left, District Leader Rosie Mendez and Councilmember Margarita Lopez sang along to the “12 Days of Christmas,” redone with lyrics for a community center — “7 groups a’meeting, 6 workers training, 5 gal-ler-ies, 4 poets reading, 3 youth programs, 2 theaters and 1 com-mu-ni-tee fa-ci-li-tee…” — as activists in costume depicted former Mayor Giuliani giving the old P.S. 64 building to The Grinch.

Will Mike rewrite end of ‘Grinch Who Stole CHARAS’?

By Lincoln Anderson

Calling on Mayor Michael Bloomberg to give in the spirit of the holiday season and return the old P.S. 64 school building to its former use as a community center, more than 100 East Villagers rallied and sang Christmas carols Loisaida style on the City Hall steps in a chilly drizzle Tuesday morning.

Councilmember Margarita Lopez and Democratic District Leader Rosie Mendez led the event, which for the first time brought together in one spot the disparate groups that have been fighting a dormitory project by developer Gregg Singer on the site of the former school building at Ninth St. and Avenue B, most recently home to CHARAS/El Bohio cultural and community center.

In October, Singer filed a plan to build a 19-story dormitory on the 10th St. side of the site, where the old “H”-style, turn-of-the-century school building would be demolished, though its Ninth St. facade would be preserved.

“I love the season that we are in right now — the season of giving,” said Lopez. “It means that we must embrace human grace over material profit.” She accused Singer, however, of trying to turn the property into a “moneymaking machine.”

“Art, theater, galleries, movies, theater, youth programs — that’s what that building should be used for,” Lopez said. “That building is to provide resources to our community. Our children need to be developed. Our community needs services. And that building is where that should happen. ‘Community’ means the people who live there, and not the people from outside,” she added.

The property carries a deed restriction for use as a community facility, which includes as permitted uses dormitories, schools, medical facilities, religious facilities and libraries.

Calling Bloomberg “a man of integrity and thought,” the councilmember appealed to him to stop Singer. “Don’t let this man get away with doing what it was never intended for,” she said of the old public school building.

The demonstration included a skit of two costumed characters, performance artist David Leslie in a Rudy Giuliani mask with another activist in a Grinch mask, holding a gift-wrapped miniature old P.S. 64. It was under Mayor Giuliani in 1998 that the auction of the building occurred, with Singer buying it for $3.15 million. At the end of the event, Mendez wrested the mini former CHARAS away from the Grinch and Giuliani and returned to “the community,” represented by Lopez.

“Today Mayor Bloomberg finally has a chance to listen to this community,” said David McWater, chairperson of Community Board 3. “He should landmark this building immediately.”

“Landmark! Landmark! Landmark!” the crowd chanted.

Singer’s plan is currently under review by D.O.B. and an alteration permit allowing the building’s partial demolition could be granted any day now. (A demolition permit technically refers to the complete demolition of a building.) D.O.B. says the only thing that would stop the permit from being issued is if the city’s Landmarks Preservation Commission decides there is a chance the building could be landmarked and calendars it for a designation hearing.

“The building should not be touched until there is a decision on landmarking,” Lopez said. “It should happen and it should happen immediately.”

Lopez also said Singer must reveal his plans for the dorm’s tenancy. So far, he has failed to offer any specifics, other than saying New York City has a pressing need for more student dorm beds. When Singer’s earlier plan for a 23-story dorm at the site was reported in April, Singer said it might be a multi-university dorm or that it might advertise rooms for students.

“It’s a shame on this city for putting us in this situation,” said performance artist preacher Reverend Billy.

“There isn’t an activist in the East Village who isn’t ready to lay down his or her body in front of any bulldozers that try to destroy that building,” Billy warned. “That is sacred! Sacred! Sacred!” he said of the old school building.

State Committeemember Michael Farrin said CHARAS/El Bohio was a “seedbed” for social justice, pointing out that organizing meetings for the fair-wages campaign for Mexican immigrant greengrocery workers were first held there, before the initiative went citywide.

“It seems our current mayor is a bit more attuned to social justice than our former mayor,” noted Farrin, hopefully.

It would certainly be a Christmas miracle if the building was landmarked and returned to the community. However, three calls directed to Jennifer Falk, a mayoral spokesperson, were not returned. Two calls to the Landmarks Preservation Commission were also not returned. Speaking to The Villager last week, Robert Tierney, L.P.C.’s chairperson, was noncommittal, saying the landmarking of the old building continued to be under review and that no hearing had been calendared. Tierney had also claimed to be unaware of Singer’s intention to demolish three-quarters of the building — despite the fact that the East Village Community Coalition had written him two weeks earlier, notifying him of the matter.

Opponents of the dorm have been eager to learn if Singer is required to have a signed lease with a tenant in order to qualify for the community facilities zoning allowance, which grants a developer added bulk.

Last week, Singer told The Villager why he feels he isn’t required to have a tenant in place. Builders developing on residentially zoned property and wanting to add square footage by using the community facilities allowance need to have a lease with a tenant, he said. But, in his case, he said, he has no choice but to build a community facility — he doesn’t have the option of building residentially because the property isn’t zoned for it.

Singer said he’s sorry if people don’t like his new design by Beyer Blinder Belle, but that’s what the building will look like.

“There’s always going to be people who aren’t going to like it, because they don’t like anything,” he said. “If they don’t like this, they won’t like anything.”

Asked what would happen if the activists do in fact “put their bodies on the line” to defend the old school building from demolition, Singer said, “I guess — get run over. I mean, this isn’t Tiananmen Sq…. You’ve go to understand, for five years they’ve said they wanted an arts center there,” Singer said. “Where’s the tenant? It’s not fair to have that empty building sitting there. At some point, you’ve got to move forward and do the project.”

Yet, Singer won’t be able to move forward until he can show D.O.B. proof that universities are interested in the building — as opposed to it being what some might call a dorm “built on spec” or “speculative dorm.”

Asked if Singer needs to have a tenant in place to build his dorm using the community facilities allowance, Ilyse Fink, a Buildings spokesperson, said, in several e-mail responses to varying phrasings of the question: “The department has told the developer’s representatives that he must present proof that the building is in fact going to be operated as a school dormitory…. The approval for use as a dormitory is predicated on whether the developer can demonstrate the necessary affiliation with a school…. The department is seeking evidence of institutional control and will evaluate the developer’s submission accordingly.”

According to a source, D.O.B. wants to see what Singer will offer and doesn’t want to render an opinion in advance.

New York University has repeatedly said it is not interested in Singer’s project, reiterating this position just a few weeks ago. New School University has previously said it isn’t interested either.

In a related incident, early on the morning of Nov. 24, posters equating the new Ninth St. dorm design with Auschwitz concentration camp and the dorm’s architects with Nazi architect Rudolph Hess were plastered over the doors and entrance of Beyer Blinder Belle’s office building at 41 E. 11th St. and on nearby lampposts.

Richard Blinder, who designed Singer’s project, said he doesn’t think there is a police investigation of the incident, because it wasn’t captured on any security video cameras.

“No, I mean I don’t know what we can do about it,” he said. “We haven’t found [a camera] that captured it.” He was “pretty outraged” about the incident, he said.

Detective Bernard Gifford, a Police Department spokesperson, said no complaints for criminal mischief had been filed for offending posters at the location on either Nov. 23 or 24.

The Villager was tipped off about the posters by someone who sent an e-mail and the poster under the e-mail name savecharas@yahoo.com. “Civil disobedience in the face of evil,” was the e-mail’s headline. No one else apparently received this e-mail except The Villager. “We trust you,” the e-mail noted.

Susan Howard of the Save CHARAS Committee said she was disturbed on two counts: because people might assume she or Chino Garcia, the co-founder of CHARAS, had sent the e-mail, and because she felt it denigrated the Holocaust to compare it to a community battle over a dorm. Howard’s e-mail address is charas@erols.com.

“I won’t even use ‘Nazism’ as a reference to anything, because I feel it has to remain the horror that it is,” Howard said. “You can’t equate the annihilation of 6 million people with the destruction of a school building. The Left, as far as I know, wouldn’t do stuff like that.” Last month, before the incident, Howard said her group didn’t plan any harassment of Beyer Blinder Belle.

District Leader Mendez agreed that to compare the Holocaust to Singer’s “University House at Tompkins Square Park” project was outrageous.

Said Mendez: “The atrocities that happened in the Holocaust can’t be compared to anything else. I was a bit offended by the flier.”
The Villager replied to the e-mail asking the sender to identify him- or herself, but there was no response.

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