BY LINCOLN ANDERSON | It’s hard to believe that it’s been 20 years since the old P.S. 64 was auctioned by the city and bought by developer Gregg Singer at a bargain-basement price of just $3.2 million. Even harder to believe is that the old school still sits vacant today.
Yet, last October, while running for re-election, Mayor Bill de Blasio, addressing hundreds of locals at a Lower East Side town hall, announced that the city was interested in “reacquiring” the turn-of-the-century building.
“Decisions made a long time ago were a mistake,” de Blasio declared then. “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 Councilmember [Rosie] Mendez and her successor to get that done.”
In the nearly nine months since that stunning announcement, however, there has been no further word from City Hall on plans to wrest back the building from Singer.
Last Friday, local politicians and community activists gathered in front of the fenced-off building at 605 E. Ninth St., at Avenue B, to mark the 20-year anniversary of the sale, and also to call on Mayor de Blasio to follow through on his pledge. They were about 100 in all, and spilled into the street in front of the old school.
Among them was Chino Garcia, the executive director of CHARAS / El Bohio, the Puerto Rican-led group that ran a community and cultural center in the building from 1978 to 2001, when they were evicted by Singer.
Also present, though at a distance, on the sidewalk near the corner of Avenue B, was a contingent of around 25 police, quietly keeping an eye on things. They paled in comparison to the huge force of riot-helmet-wearing cops who massed on the street 17 years ago for the eviction. In 2006, at the end of a march for slain squatter activist Brad Will, people broke into the building with a bolt cutter and rode bikes around inside of it. But the most aggressive thing about last week’s rally was when a red-tail hawk from the park perched on a fire escape across the street from the old school and hungrily eyed the pigeons.
Addressing the crowd, former Councilmember Mendez said, “I think the mayor is a little reticent because of this lawsuit. But you don’t ‘right the wrongs of the past’ by staying silent.”
Regarding the lawsuit, in January, Singer and his associates sued those who they hold responsible for blocking his ever-changing schemes of creating a university dorm; early on, Singer wanted to build a high-rise tower at the site, with one version 27 stories and a later version 19 stories. However, since 2006, when the building was landmarked right under him, he has been trying to renovate the existing structure as a dorm.
But after Mendez badgered the Department of Buildings, charging that Singer’s latest dorm plans — from his hoped-for tenants to how the space would be allocated — didn’t conform with the law, D.O.B. slapped a stop-work order on the project in the fall of 2017, which remains in effect to this day.
“Singer get out!” one sign at the rally said simply, expressing the hope of everyone there.
Among those named in the developer’s lawsuit are Mendez, D.O.B., Mayor de Blasio, the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation, as well as its director, Andrew Berman, and Mendez’s successor in the City Council, Carlina Rivera.
CHARAS / El Bohio was always about nurturing the local arts scene, and, in that spirit, community activist Ayo Harrington sang a song at the rally, “Stop, No Lease, No Dorm,” to the tune of “Stop in the Name of Love.” As she crooned, Mendez and District Leader Anthony Feliciano did a Supremes-like shuffle behind her.
In the final verse, she sang:
Billy, Billy, at a town hall,
said you’d buy back CHARAS
in front of us all.
Several calls by The Villager this Monday and Tuesday to the City Hall Press Office seeking comment from the Mayor’s Office were repeatedly answered by a recorded greeting, telling reporters to e-mail their questions. E-mailed requests for comment on why the administration has not held any follow-up meetings with stakeholders about a strategy to regain the building — and its future use — were not responded to by press time. The assumption is the building could be taken back through eminent domain, which would require the city to pay Singer fair market value for it; previously, Mendez has cited a figure of $40 million.
Looking around at the representatives of various community groups at the rally, and calling out the names of their groups, Assemblymember Harvey Epstein said, “This is what the community’s about. De Blasio has a responsibility to follow through on his pledge and get this building back.”
He noted the recent news that Boys Club of New York plans to sell its Harriman Clubhouse at E. 10th St. and Avenue A.
“We need community spaces,” he stressed. “We need spaces like CHARAS.”
Added Feliciano, “We are a neighborhood that’s like a family. When anything’s taken away, we fight.”
Councilmember Rivera had some of the toughest criticism of de Blasio.
“I talk to the mayor…occasionally,” she said, adding pointedly, “He hasn’t always been a partner on community projects.
“I promise I will get what we deserve,” Rivera said, concluding with, “and que viva CHARAS!” (“long live CHARAS!”)
Asked afterward what exactly she meant by the mayor not being an ally on community projects, she elaborated, “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 coastal resiliency project.”
On the Tech Hub tower, planned at the P.C. Richard & Son site on E. 14th St., Rivera wants an extra floor to be earmarked for the community-based digital-skills training program, and also wants zoning protections put in place to mitigate the project’s impact on development in the surrounding area. As for coastal resiliency, Rivera said federal money has been allocated, but it can be lost if not used by a certain date.
Meanwhile, Mendez and CHARAS’s Garcia noted the many ideas and programs that were incubated and nurtured in the building, from the city’s first recycling operation and first effort to use solar power to the Lower East Side Mutual Housing Association, the Danspace Project and Picture the Homeless.
As Susan Howard, a leading member of the Save CHARAS effort put it, “Anybody could come in with an idea or project, and if they didn’t have the money for it, Armando and Chino would help them and support it.”
Armando Perez, CHARAS / El Bohio’s cultural director — who had vowed he would rather die than see the building sold away from them — was tragically murdered in Queens in April 1999.
“Armando, we miss him very, very much,” Garcia said, sadly. “I’m hoping that this time next year, we will be celebrating inside [the building] instead of outside.”
Finishing things off with some more music, Elizabeth Ruf Maldonado and Karl Bateman a.k.a. the acoustic punk duo The Head Peddlers performed an original song of theirs, “Room With a View,” followed up by “En La Vida Todo Es Ir,” by Puerto Rican poet Juan Antonio Corretjer, with music by Puerto Rican musician Roy Brown.