Gimme shelter, says owner as old P.S. 64 is landmarked


By Lincoln Anderson

Volume 76, Number 5 | June 21 – 27 2006

The image on the Web site of the Christotora Treatment Center shows the type of client the center will treat. “Yeah — she’s a bum,” said the center’s developer, Gregg Singer.

Gimme shelter, says owner, as old P.S. 64 is landmarked

East Village activists fighting to save the old P.S. 64 on E. Ninth St. celebrated on Tuesday morning as the Landmarks Preservation Commission designated it an individual city landmark, safeguarding it from the wrecking ball.

A few hours later, Gregg Singer, who purchased the building from the city in 1998 and is bent on developing a towering dormitory on the site, announced his plan for the building, for at least the next several years, to be home to the Christotora Treatment Center, a facility providing temporary housing for the homeless and ex-convicts fresh out of jail, supportive housing for people with H.I.V./AIDS and services for the mentally ill, substance abusers and “troubled youth.”

The photo on the center’s Web page shows a woman with scabs and bruises on her face. Singer said this is the type of person who will use the center.

“She’s got a lesion, a scab and a bruise from being battered,” he explained. “Oh yeah — she’s a bum.” Singer denied the image had been Photoshopped and said this woman lives on the Lower East Side, though he declined to provide her name.

Singer said, under law, he believes up to 400 homeless persons could be housed at the old P.S. 64. He said the facility would be run by a privately endowed corporation financed by wealthy philanthropists he knows. He said, depending how it works out, he might make the treatment center permanent and eventually seek government funding for it.

Calling the landmarking of the old P.S. 64 “stupid,” Singer said he plans to file a lawsuit in hopes of overturning the designation. He already has two other lawsuits lodged against the project, including one suing Mayor Bloomberg and three city agencies for $100 million in damages for blocking him from building his 19-story dorm and another suing the Board of Standards and Appeals for rejecting his appeal of the Department of Buildings’ denial of his building permit on the grounds that he doesn’t have a 10-year lease in place with a university.

Singer anticipates the lawsuits will take three to five years to work out, and said he has decided to use the building as a treatment center in the meantime. The building is adjacent to the Christodora House condominium tower, which is home to leading members of the East Village Community Coalition, which spearheaded the fight to landmark the old P.S. 64. Singer said he changed the “d” in Christodora to a “t” to come up with Christotora “to be a little different,” but the mission statement on his Web site for the treatment center says that Christodora House’s original use as a settlement house inspired the treatment center.

The landmarking of old P.S. 64 means that the standstill agreement preventing Singer from acting on his pre-existing permit to strip the building’s ornamental facade has been lifted. Speaking on Tuesday, Singer said he indeed now plans to commence with the stripping of the building’s terracotta window trim and copper cornice, starting on the 10th St. side. He said he’s still deciding whether or not to strip the detailing on the building’s Ninth St. side, since that part of the building’s shell would be preserved in his dormitory tower plan. He said the crew will arrive to put up the scaffolding this Wednesday or Thursday and that as soon as they erect it, they’ll start demolishing exterior details.

Singer said his strategy is to strip the building’s facade by using his pre-existing permit, then argue in court that the building never should have been landmarked in the first place.

Asked if he knew of an instance where the courts had reversed a New York City landmarking designation, Singer admitted, “We don’t know of a case — but this is the case.”

On Tuesday, Lisi de Bourbon, a spokesperson for the Landmarks Preservation Commission, said there has never been a case where a court has overturned the L.P.C.’s designation of an individual landmarked building.

Grassroots symbol

Earlier in the day, before unanimously voting to designate the turn-of-the-century former school, L.P.C. commissioners had praised the old P.S. 64 as architecturally, historically and culturally significant and emphatically hailed it as a symbol of grassroots, community empowerment.

The commissioners spoke of the building’s impressive French Renaissance-style architecture; its illustrious alumni, such as Yip Harburg, lyricist of “The Wizard of Oz,” and film producer Joseph Mankiewicz; its contribution to the country’s education history, as the place where Elizabeth Irwin — the Little Red Schoolhouse’s founder — tried out her pioneering theories on I.Q.; and its pivotal role in the Lower East Side’s immigrant history.

But the most compelling statement came from Roberta Brandez Gratz, one of the 11 commissioners, who praised the old P.S. 64 as the epicenter of the grassroots, community revival movement.

Gratz called the building’s designation “one of the most significant decisions of the Landmarks Preservation Commission in recent years.”

“For the first time, the commission will be recognizing a building not only of enormous architectural merit but one of unique cultural significance that for the first time acknowledges and celebrates the contribution to the robust regeneration of our city made by community-based efforts,” Gratz said.

Gratz said that when landlords in the late 1960s and ’70s were abandoning poor neighborhoods like the Lower East Side, and the city was turning its back, groups of local residents took over abandoned buildings, such as the old P.S. 64, spurring neighborhood revival. Adopt-a-Building — which led the homesteading of abandoned tenements — first squatted the building, after which CHARAS/El Bohio community and cultural center occupied the old P.S. 64 for two decades until being evicted a few years ago by Singer.

Gratz said the old P.S. 64 isn’t just a city landmark, but a national landmark, since from places like the Lower East Side and South Bronx, the neighborhood revitalization movement spread across the country.

“It was sheer folly for the last administration to auction off this building, cutting short its productive life as a focal point of community innovation, energy and growth,” Gratz said.

Responding to Singer’s threat to remove the building’s exterior features, Gratz said the building’s architecture, as well as importance in shaping the area’s immigrant history, outweigh any damage Singer can legally do.

“No amount of stripping of the architectural detailing, such as the white terracotta trim, can diminish [the building’s] importance,” she said. “From the red brick walls to the mortar in its joints, the importance is secure.”

‘Building deserves respect’

Robert Tierney, L.P.C. chairperson, praised the commissioners’ for meeting “the challenge” of making the designation and said that their vote had been “informed by the public participation,” referring to the outpouring of community support for the designation at last month’s public hearing. Tierney called on all parties — including Singer — to now move forward together. Landmarking a building is very serious and something the commission does with utmost care, he noted.

“It will now be a treasured New York City landmark,” Tierney said, “deserving of love, attention, respect. We do not designate lightly.”

But in a lengthy interview earlier this month, Singer said he has no option but to strip the building.

“The city’s forcing me do the work — that’s the problem,” Singer contended, saying the city has left him no other choice to protect his investment and maximize his profit than to strip the building.

Asked why he opposes the landmarking, he said, “Because we have 120,000 square feet of air rights. It’s worth about $36 million — and we can’t just give the city $36 million. I have a financial responsibility to my investors.”

He calculates the total value of the property at 605 E. Ninth St. — 228,000 square feet, which includes air rights — as $87 million. And he says he won’t accept a penny less in order to relinquish the property — which he bought in a recession — in today’s current sizzling real estate market. Without air rights, the building has been appraised at $51 million, he said.

“You have a block-through site,” he noted. “Where else do you get that?”

Singer predicts he’ll win in court, and if the city doesn’t cut a deal with him, he said, “Then they write me a big check.”

Yet, so far, Singer has been doing all the paying. He said he has sunk more than $20 million into 605 E. Ninth St., including purchasing it from the city for $3.15 million in 1998. He said legal costs have been $1.6 million; real estate taxes $1 million; security $1 million over seven years; insurance $1 million; interest on loans $2 million; asbestos removal several hundred thousand dollars; and test borings of the soil $100,000

Singer claims the city not long ago proposed that he make the project residential, to which he responded he would then want to add four floors atop the exiting five-story building. But ultimately, he said, he wants to build a dorm, since that would allow for added height under the community facilities zoning, letting him build the 19-story tower. A residential project couldn’t take advantage of the community facilities zoning.

“You’re giving up so much money,” Singer said. “There’s a lot more money in dorms. [In residential projects], there’s no bonus,” he said. Plus, he stressed, under the property’s deed restriction, any building there must be a community facility, which a dorm is.

He said he has had eight meetings and 50 phone conversations with city officials about the building. Asked if he has the conversations on tape, he said, “I can’t answer that. Put it this way — we know exactly what was said.”

‘Millions for nonprofits’

Singer claims his dorm would be a financial windfall for the community to the tune of $60 million. Under his plan, he would build the dorm and sell it to a nonprofit organization. Rent from students living in the dorm would generate $120 million for this nonprofit organization, University House, over 30 years; $60 million of this revenue would go to the university or universities connected with the dorm, while the other $60 million, Singer said, would be donated to other local nonprofit organizations.

“Over $5 billion worth of this kind of construction has been done in the U.S.A.,” he said. “It’s called the privatized student housing market.”

In his June 9 interview with The Villager, Singer tellingly had said, if he doesn’t build a dorm, the only option that makes sense for reuse of the existing building would be for “homeless and drug-abuse housing — because they can pay more; they get more funding.” At that time, however, he didn’t mention his plan for a privately funded treatment center.

Singer noted that a few months ago, George McDonald, the head of the Doe Fund, toured the building with representatives of the Bowery Residents’ Committee and Volunteers of America, all groups that work with homeless substance abusers. In addition, he said, Andrew Coamey, of Housing Works, toured the building a month or two ago and that Housing Works wanted to buy it to use for AIDS housing.

“Andrew Coamey was here and said, ‘This is incredible. I’ll take the property,’ ” Singer said. Singer said Coamey knew about the building’s contentious history, “but he thought enough time had gone by — and that it was better than having the building empty.”

“Ultimately, if it’s not going to be a dorm, it’s going to be a drug and homeless center,” Singer said.

Coamey, Housing Works’s C.F.O., said Singer offered them the entire existing building for $60 million to $80 million, way out of their range. That figure didn’t even include the roughly $20 million cost of fixing up the dilapidated building, Coamey said. He said Singer alternately offered them a net lease for the front half of the building, while Singer would build his dorm in the rear. But Coamey said Housing Works does not support the dormitory tower and wanted no part of the deal. Singer said he offered the building for such a high price because any buyer has to purchase the total value of the property —including the air rights, whether or not they plan to use them to develop a tower.

Meanwhile, Singer’s Christotora Treatment House was met with a mix of approval, skepticism and scorn — but not the outrage and panic Singer perhaps hoped for.

Calling Singer’s latest plan “crazy,” Coamey said Singer would have to get a state license to offer mental health or substance abuse treatment at the center, but that, without any license, he could operate the building like a large “church mission,” opening it up to provide nightly shelter and meals.

On Tuesday, Singer said he plans to contract with smaller providers to run the various services in the center. He would do this, he said, since he figures Councilmember Rosie Mendez — who supported the landmarking and whom Singer has accused of scaring off potential nonprofit tenants — would be less able to block their funding than government funds for larger organizations. Singer noted he has connections in the field, since his mother started a drug treatment center in Florida.

Mendez was concerned whether a privately financed treatment center would be affordable for clients. As for whether Singer might be trying to intimidate neighbors in the Christodora condos and elsewhere by putting a social-service facility that some might not want in their back yard, she said, “They’ve been there for a long time…. I don’t think they’re going to be scared away by this proposal.” Of the treatment center, she offered, “It’s a needed service.”

Neighbors not scared

David McWater, chairperson of Community Board 3, said the image of the beaten woman on Singer’s treatment center Web site sounds “childish” and “immature.”

“He’s doing that to scare people,” McWater said. “It’s despicable he would do that. But people in this neighborhood aren’t scared by that. This neighborhood has always cared about poor people and the underclass, people with AIDS. We’ll embrace them and they’ll become part of our community. I’m embarrassed for him,” McWater said of Singer.

Roland Legiardi-Laura and Michael Rosen, members of E.V.C.C., the latter who lives in the Christodora condos, both said they welcomed the treatment center, feeling that it maybe shows Singer has a heart. They both said they’d gladly volunteer there. In fact, Rosen, himself a developer, has had a hand in building several shelters in the East Village, for which he said he’s proud.

“So he’s wreaking vengeance on the neighborhood by helping troubled people?” asked Legiardi-Laura. “This is good. We’ve turned him into his great-grandfather’s pride and joy.” In 1922, Singer’s great-grandfather founded the Home of Old Israel, a privately endowed organization that provided free housing, meals and activities for the elderly. Legiardi-Laura said that from the “tone” of Singer’s Web page, it sounds like he’s “trying to scare the yuppies at the Christodora House that people will be vomiting on their steps — but that already happens.”

Rosen said the treatment center’s name seems to be a “mockery” of the Christodora House, and that the plan probably comes out of anger, but that, “If he uses the building that way, and he’s providing the funds, it would be a contribution to society.”

As for what can be done to stop Singer from stripping the building, Legiardi-Laura and Rosen said at this point there’s no way to block Singer from acting on his pre-existing permit. A court-ordered injunction filed by Rosen and three others staying the exterior work was lifted May 30. But Legiardi-Laura said the community will most certainly respond — in a “civil, nonviolent way.”

Chino Garcia, the director of CHARAS, said slicing off the old P.S. 64’s details would be a shame.

“Ah, that’s inhuman,” he said. “That building should never be touched.”

Garcia said CHARAS also made an effort to landmark the building, but it stalled.

“We tried, we tried one time,” he recalled, but he said they dropped the idea, “because it was so complicated and we didn’t have the time or the energy.” He said he was happy the building was finally landmarked.