Communication breakdown: Politicians ask mayor to ‘restart dialogue’ on old P.S. 64

At a rally in July outside the old P.S. 64, from left, CHARAS’s Chino Garcia, G.V.S.H.P.’s Andrew Berman (hidden from view), Councilmember Carlina Rivera, Ayo Harrington, Assemblymember Harvey Epstein, Borough President Gale Brewer, former Councilmember Rosie Mendez and District Leader Anthony Feliciano. At right is a puppet head of Armando Perez, CHARAS’s late cultural director. Photo by Roberto J. Mercado

BY LINCOLN ANDERSON | Following The Villager’s report of Mayor de Blasio saying the city is having difficulty reacquiring an East Village school building because its owner is being “exceedingly uncooperative,” local politicians, in turn, recently wrote de Blasio, saying they want to “restart the dialogue” with him to help return the building to community use.

At a Lower East Side town hall meeting in October 2017, as the mayor was running for re-election, in a stunning announcement, he declared that the city was “interested in reacquiring” the building.

“Decisions made a long time ago were a mistake,” he told the audience at the packed meeting, which greeted the news with ecstatic applause. “To place that building in the hands of a private owner was a failed mistake. So I’m announcing tonight, the city’s interest in reacquiring that building. We are ready to right the wrongs of the past and will work with [then-]Councilmember [Rosie] Mendez and her successor to get that done.”

Yet, while the mayor says he has been unable to negotiate with the building’s owner, Gregg Singer, local politicians, for their part, say they have been unable to have substantial discussions about the issue with the mayor, either.

As a result, jointly writing to de Blasio on Oct. 9 and saying they want to help in the effort were City Councilmember Carlina Rivera, Congressmember Carolyn Maloney, state Senator Brad Hoylman, Assemblymember Harvey Epstein, Public Advocate Letitia James, City Comptroller Scott Stringer and Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer.

“We are writing to follow up again on your remarks regarding 605 E. Ninth St., former home to CHARAS/El Bohio,” the pols wrote. “During the Council District 2 Town Hall on October 12, 2017, you publicly stated that your office would explore ways to reacquire the building.

“One year later, residents of the East Village and Lower East Side continue to express their enthusiasm at this change of heart after previous mayors let this community asset sit idle and in disrepair. Your acknowledgment of the issues with the sale at auction of this property 20 years ago to private developers has given hope to the many who wish to see this building return to true community use under the city’s auspices.

“We also want to acknowledge recent comments made to the press regarding challenges with working with the developer,” the politicians’ letter continued. “Since our last substantive exchange on the topic with your office was back in February 2018, we are ready to restart the dialogue and move forward with you to close this divide and make this a reality!

“We look forward to discussing next steps with your office soon.”

This past August, when de Blasio was hosting a media roundtable in Brooklyn, The Villager asked him where things stood with reacquiring the building from Singer.

Two months ago, Mayor de Blasio, while hosting a media roundtable in Brooklyn, told The Villager that the city still wants to reacquire the old P.S. 64 but that its owner, Gregg Singer, has been “exceedingly uncooperative.” Photo by Lincoln Anderson

De Blasio answered by saying the developer “has been exceedingly uncooperative,” adding, “We’ve tried to have a productive conversation about purchase. We’ve gotten nowhere so far. We’re not giving up. We’re working very closely with the councilmember, Carlina Rivera. I’m very frustrated with that owner.”

Asked at that time by The Villager if the city would use eminent domain to force Singer to sell, de Blasio responded, “[That’s] certainly something I want to know more about, but I had hoped the best solution here would be a direct purchase. That’s not off the table. It’s just we’re just not getting any cooperation so far.”

Estimates a few years ago pegged the fair-market purchase price for the building at around $40 million.

Singer bought 605 E. Ninth St. at a rock-bottom bargain price — just $3.2 million — at an auction of city-owned properties in 1998. Three years later, he evicted the Latino-led activist group CHARAS from the building, which it had run as the El Bohio community and cultural center for 23 years.

Two decades after Singer bought the property, just east of Tompkins Square Park, it continues to sit vacant as the developer’s various schemes to redevelop it as a for-profit university dormitory have all failed. Some of Singer’s earlier plans called for building a high-rise dormitory tower there and totally or partially demolishing the historic building. But, to Singer’s chagrin, the city landmarked the old school in 2006, after which he has instead focused on trying to renovate it for reuse. However, a stop-work order has been in effect at the former school since August 2015 as the city continues to question the legality of Singer’s dorm plans.

Then, in January of this year, his frustration apparently peaking, Singer sued de Blasio, the Department of Buildings, former City Councilmember Rosie Mendez, current Councilmember Carlina Rivera, the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation and Andrew Berman, its executive director, hedge-funder / East Village Community Coalition activist Aaron Sosnick and “John and Jane Doe 1 — 100, whose identities are unknown at present,” claiming a wide-ranging conspiracy to keep him from redeveloping the property.

This July, local politicians and activists gathered outside the former El Bohio — which means “the hut” in Puerto Rico’s indigenous Taino language — to mark the 20th anniversary of the building’s sale, and also to urge the mayor to follow through on his pledge to get the building back.

At the rally, Rivera stated that de Blasio “hasn’t always been a partner on community projects.” Asked afterward to elaborate on that, she said, “We haven’t had good negotiations on the Tech Hub project. I haven’t heard about CHARAS. And I haven’t had a substantial conversation on the [East Side] coastal resiliency project.”

(Rivera, of course, would go on to vote to approve the E. 14th St. Tech Hub project, though without the sweeping neighborhood protections called for by G.V.S.H.P.)

Meanwhile, for his part, Singer says it’s completely the opposite of what the mayor is saying: that he, in fact, has reached out to de Blasio, but that the mayor has been stonewalling him.

Local activists’ message to building owner Gregg Singer — with the old P.S. 64 still sitting vacant after 20 years — is clear: Give it back! Photo by Roberto J. Mercado

Following The Villager’s report of de Blasio calling Singer “exceedingly uncooperative,” Gotham Government Communications and Relations, a P.R. firm representing Singer, shared with the newspaper various correspondence that Singer and his proxies have sent to the mayor in the past couple of years about the old P.S. 64. Among these is a copy of a Sept. 2017 letter — marked “hand delivered” — from Singer begging the mayor for a permit so he can start renovating the old P.S. 64 building again. Singer cites a petition with an alleged 1,500 signatures in support for the project when it included dormitory space for Adelphi University. In his letter, Singer also promises to respect the property’s deed restriction for community-facility use and says he would not try to lift it, specifically contrasting it with another former Lower East Side school building, Rivington House, where developers succeeded in stripping off a similar deed restriction — in a major scandal for the de Blasio administration. Adelphi, however, has since dropped out of the 605 E. Ninth St. project.

Bradley Gerstman, above, who played a key role for Donald Trump’s campaign, is now working for Gregg Singer, too.

Also included in the documents shared with The Villager are ones from this May, showing that Gotham founding partner Bradley Gerstman, at that time, pitched yet another plan for the building to City Hall: to turn it into a facility for military veterans called the National Veterans’ Resource Complex. A digital brochure describes a center where veterans would get “vocational and entrepreneurship education.” The City University of New York is listed as a partner in this plan, along with the city’s Department of Veteran Affairs and New York City Health and Hospitals.

 

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