Pols cheer victory on former CHARAS

At Sunday’s victory rally, CHARAS’s Chino Garcia spoke to the crowd gathered in front of the group’s former home, the old P.S. 64.   Photo by Roberto J. Mercado

At Sunday’s victory rally, CHARAS’s Chino Garcia spoke to the crowd gathered in front of the group’s former home, the old P.S. 64. Photo by Roberto J. Mercado

BY LINCOLN ANDERSON   |  Celebrating what they called a major win in their effort to reclaim the former old P.S. 64 for community use, politicians, advocates and community members rallied Sunday afternoon outside the historic East Village building.

The city’s Department of Buildings issued a stop-work order for the project, at 605 E. Ninth St., between Avenues B and C, on Sept. 22.

The building’s owner, Gregg Singer, has signed contracts with The Cooper Union and Joffrey Ballet School to take a total of more than 200 beds on about two-thirds of the building’s floors.

Councilmember Rosie Mendez, whose district includes the building, had written twice to D.O.B., charging that the project violated the “Dorm Rule,” but never heard back.

A few weeks ago, Mendez — feeling both frustrated and insulted — wrote one final letter to the agency. At the time, she told The Villager that if D.O.B. didn’t respond to her — or rejected her argument — she would promptly stage a community protest. But in a surprising turnaround, D.O.B. now sided with Mendez, and it became occasion, not for a protest, but a victory party.

D.O.B. said the rescinding of the permits for the dorm was based on “failure to provide all necessary information” about the tenants and the plan.

“This former abandoned building holds the aspirations of thousands of schoolchildren who dreamed of a better future and the hopes of an entire community that reclaimed this space from drug dealers to determine community use from the needs and desires of its residents,” Mendez said on Sunday. “This building should be returned to the people of the Lower East Side/East Village and we will continue our struggle to keep that hope alive.”

Singer bought the old school at city auction in 1998 for $3.2 million. Today, at fair-market value, it’s likely worth $30 million to $40 million, which the city would have to pay to reclaim it for community use, Mendez said.

Standing across from the old P.S. 64 (the former CHARAS / El Bohio Cultural and Community Center) on E. Ninth St. Sunday, politicians and CHARAS’s Chino Garcia hailed the city’s decision to issue a stop-work order on a college dorm planned for the building. Clockwise from front row center, former Councilmember Margarita Lopez, Garcia, District Leader Anthony Feliciano, Councilmember Rosie Mendez, District Leader Carlina Rivera, state Senator Brad Hoylman, Assemblymember Brian Kavanagh and State Committeeman Michael Farrin. Photo by Roberto J. Mercado

Standing across from the old P.S. 64 (the former CHARAS / El Bohio Cultural and Community Center) on E. Ninth St. Sunday, politicians and CHARAS’s Chino Garcia hailed the city’s decision to issue a stop-work order on a college dorm planned for the building. Clockwise from front row center, former Councilmember Margarita Lopez, Garcia, District Leader Anthony Feliciano, Councilmember Rosie Mendez, District Leader Carlina Rivera, state Senator Brad Hoylman, Assemblymember Brian Kavanagh and State Committeeman Michael Farrin. Photo by Roberto J. Mercado

A few years after purchasing the old P.S. 64, Singer evicted CHARAS/El Bohio, the Latino-run group that had squatted it years earlier and had turned it into a community and cultural center.

“In the last 15 years, since Singer took control of the building, we haven’t bothered him and have been cool,” said Carlos “Chino” Garcia, CHARAS’s executive director. “But after this last fiasco with this mega-dormitory, he should sit down and negotiate with us.

“The reality is this guy is a developer,” Garcia added. “Like every developer, they think they can come in with ideas to beat the community. He should sit down and negotiate with us. We’re getting sick of this!”

Under Mendez’s predecessor, former Councilmember Margarita Lopez, the city landmarked the old P.S. 64 right under Singer, throwing a curveball into his development scheme to raze all but the front facade of the existing historic building and add a high-rise tower. Working closely with Lopez was the East Village Community Coalition, which was founded to fight the tower plan.

So, can Singer’s plans, at last, be beaten and the building restored as a community center?

“Absolutely,” Lopez told The Villager, “with the work that Rosie has been doing to make sure that he doesn’t get any illegal loopholes.

“We need to move forward to the next step,” she said. “This is an injustice. We have carried the message again and again. He’s not entitled to make a mockery of the rules and regulations of this city, and that’s what he has done time and time again.

“The moment he applied for that permit, it should have been denied,” Lopez said of Singer’s latest plan with The Cooper Union and Joffrey Ballet School.

“I’ve seen this community do the impossible time and time again,” Lopez assured. “We can get that building back.”

Cooper alum Paul Garrin, who is a member of the school’s Hall of Fame, was also at the rally. An Internet pioneer and originator of the .nyc top-level domain name, he said he hopes D.O.B.’s ruling gives the school an out, legally speaking, so it can break its contract with Singer.

“I think it’s awesome,” Garrin said of the latest twist in the building’s ongoing saga. “Seeing that stop-work order over there pasted on the construction fence, in red letters, made it real.”

In a statement to The Villager, Justin Harmon, a school spokesperson, said, “Cooper is proud to be a part of the East Village, and we know the community respects Cooper’s history in the neighborhood. We are aware of the Department of Buildings correspondence to the developer. We are currently reviewing all the information relevant to determining the best course of action under the circumstances. We will continue to work with community representatives to identify an equitable and fair solution that balances the community’s wishes and Cooper’s contractual obligations.”

The Villager reached Singer by phone on Monday. He said he was tied up in a construction meeting.

“I don’t want to add comment to what’s going on with all this nonsense,” he said dismissively.

Asked if he has to re-file for  new building permits at this point, Singer, sounding unworried, said, no, that he will “just clarify” what he has already submitted to D.O.B.

“You’ve got Cooper Union and Joffrey Ballet, they’re legitimate tenants,” he said. “I’m with people, gotta go,” he said, before ending the conversation.

But apparently he, in fact, may be a bit concerned about recent developments.

Mendez told the newspaper that Singer had gone over to MoRUS (the Museum of Reclaimed Urban Space) on Avenue C the day before the rally to say that he wants to make sure the “real story” of the old P.S. 64 is being told. Bill di Paolo, the museum’s co-director, confirmed that Singer had spoken to Sheila Jamison, their volunteer community liaison director.

In an e-mail to The Villager, Jamison wrote, “Just before 3 p.m. on Saturday as I was processing visitors for the tour, a man casually dressed in shorts and a baseball cap, looking every bit the regular East Village Saturday afternoon tourist, entered the museum and began looking around. When he approached the desk, I asked if he were there for the tour. He responded with, ‘Is the building on the corner [the old P.S. 64] part of the tour?’ I responded, ‘It depends on who is doing the tour. Saturday is gardens and squats; Sunday is activist spaces.’ 

“He then asked if we had anything about the building on our Web site,” she continued. “I told him there may be some postings because MoRUS has been supporting the efforts to reclaim the building for the community. At that point, he introduced himself as Gregg Singer, the owner of the building, and he implored that if we talk about the building on our tours or on our Web site, that we should know the truth. He said that he has been unfairly portrayed as a bad guy in the media and no one in the media wants to tell his side of the story.

“He further went on to imply that Chino and Councilwoman Mendez had some unsavory financial dealings surrounding the building back in the day. At that point, other visitors approached the desk and I had to turn my attention to them. He thanked me, asked for my name and left with a MoRUS brochure.”

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