Gregg Singer pleads his case for his 19-story ‘Acme dorm’


By Sarah Ferguson

Sporting lapel stickers that read “NO LEASE/NO DORM,” nearly 100 opponents packed the hearing room of the city’s Board of Standards and Appeals on Aug. 16 to protest developer Gregg Singer’s dogged efforts to demolish the rear of the old P.S. 64 school at 605 E. Ninth St. in order to put up a 19-story dormitory.

The hearing recalled the impassioned, three-year court battle to reclaim what was then the CHARAS/El Bohio community center, after the Giuliani administration auctioned the building to Singer in 1998.

But while that fight was lost, this time Singer’s opponents have City Hall on their side — specifically, the Department of Buildings, which has three times rejected Singer’s permit application to build a megadorm for 800-plus students on the grounds that he does not have an actual school or schools lined up to lease the place.

The property — a five-story former elementary school — is zoned for community facility use. According to the latest D.O.B. rules, the only way that Singer can build a dorm of any size there is if he proves there will be “institutional control.” That means he must either sign a 10-year lease with a qualified university or school, or else sign a contract with a nonprofit entity to manage the dorm, whose board would have to be composed entirely of representatives from the schools leasing there.

“The department may not permit the construction of a building on the premise that a qualified institution will emerge,” Felicia Miller, deputy general counsel for the Buildings Department, argued before the B.S.A. commissioners. “If the required elements of a dorm are not present, the lenders are at risk. The department has faced this problem before where it has been left with oversized buildings, and as a result, the individuals who reside within them are at risk of losing their homes.”

Indeed, it was precisely to stop developers from abusing the community facility use bonus to add extra floors that D.O.B. issued so-called “Rule 51” last spring, which clarifies exactly what kind of institutional relationship with a school is required before a developer can put up a dorm.

But in his appeal before the B.S.A., Singer’s attorney Jeffrey Glen argued that the actual zoning resolution does not require there to be a proof of “institutional control” by a college or schools prior to construction. It makes more “economic sense,” Glen said, to build first and lease later, as demand arises.

“We do not disagree that there must be a college or school in place,” Glen said. “It’s essentially a question of timing.” Glen also claimed that D.O.B. has no power to “reinterpret” zoning regulations and said that, in any case, Singer’s use of the property should not be governed by any rule changes that have occurred since he bought the property in 1998.

Joel A. Miele, a B.S.A. commissioner, seemed skeptical. “Why do you want to build a building before you get a person or an entity or a community facility use already signed for?” Miele asked. “Why should this be done before you actually find the person who will occupy this building?”

Miele raised the possibility that the city could sign off on a massive dorm that would turn into a “white elephant” if no schools wanted to lease there.

“Who is going to provide funding for something that has this tremendous precipice?” Miele asked, “Something that has a 10-year lease, and that at the end of 10 years, you may have lost all the actual lessees — the occupants — and then you have a funding stream that needs to be satisfied over the next 20 to 25 years?”

Glen countered that it was not the role of the Buildings Department to “hypothesize that a building built as of right will fail economically.”

“The 9th and 10th Street LLC are not children,” Glen insisted of Singer’s development group. “They have done their economic background [work] and believe me, if this permit goes through, this building is going up. The funding is out there.”

Nevertheless, Glen seemed to gloss over the issue of what Singer hopes to do with the dorm once it’s built. He made no mention of Singer’s recent proposal to lease all 19 floors to the Manhattan Jewish Education Network, a division of Chabad of Gramercy Park, a Hasidic mission affiliated with the Lubavitch sect in Crown Heights. In a May 12 letter to the Buildings Department, the group’s leader, Rabbi Naftali Rotenstreich, said he was “extremely interested” in taking over the whole building in order to house a preschool, summer day camp, activity center for special-needs children and a dorm catering to Jewish students from “various school[s] in the neighborhood” — featuring a kosher deli, a Jewish library and Jewish exhibition center.

Singer refused to elaborate to The Villager, saying he would not comment “until you guys start printing the truth.”

Jennifer Givner, a Buildings Department spokesperson, confirmed that Singer had presented Chabad of Gramercy as a possible tenant but said Singer has yet to provide a lease with the group, which would not qualify anyway because it is not a licensed educational institution in New York State.

Rabbi Rotenstreich, in a statement to The Villager as to why his group wants a Hasidic mission in the heart of the East Village, said, “Chabad’s mission is to create tolerance among all people, and given the chance, we will host an open house with the community to hear the concerns and perhaps find a way to work with all parties.”

Instead, in his arguments before the B.S.A., Singer attorney Glen focused solely on Singer’s plan to run the dorm through a nonprofit the developer created called University House Corporation, which would lease space to a variety of schools, as need arises. Buildings officials say they rejected that proposal because at least two of the three initial directors of University House were not affiliated with any school and Singer didn’t show any signed leases to demonstrate how the proposed building’s 222 units would be occupied.

“He has in no case showed institutional control,” said Givner, justifying the Buildings Department’s rejection of the proposal.

In her written testimony to the B.S.A., D.O.B. attorney Miller was even more emphatic, terming Singer’s University House proposal a “generic Acme Dormitory” and a “transparent vehicle for a private developer to build what is otherwise an oversize building.”

But Glen told the B.S.A. that Singer’s all-use megadorm would be in keeping with national trends in student housing. He said in recent years more than 200 nonprofits have been created across the county to build and manage dorms for a variety of educational institutions — “depending on the educational needs of the community, which may vary over time.”

“No default has ever been reported,” he maintained.

In the case of University House, Glen said, “the not-for-profit may well find in one decade that it’s renting to law students and another decade it’s renting to nursing students at let’s say Bellevue and the V.A. hospitals…. And in another situation, it’s possibly renting to high school yeshiva students” — a reference, perhaps, to the Chabad scheme.

“The economics of the situation says you can’t set it up a priori,” Glen argued. “That’s a reason why the Buildings Department’s approach may be a little bit stilted.

“But we’re not contesting that here,” he added. “We would be O.K., once we had the permit to put up our building, to say any institution that has say 20 percent occupancy rights can have a representative on the board — as an enforcement mechanism.

“But to prevent the construction when the world of education changes all the time in New York would be to propose a restriction that is simply not in keeping with the deed,” Glen concluded.

B.S.A. Chairperson Meenakshi Srinivasan seemed less than convinced. She pointed to a July 2004 report from City Planning which also clarified the community use restriction for dorms as requiring them to be managed and controlled by a school.

She also noted that none of those 200 all-use dorms that Glen mentioned as having been built by nonprofits around the country are in New York, and hence none of them have had to abide by D.O.B. rules — a point that drew a quick round of applause from the opponents in the audience, several of whom held placards on their laps painted with words like “Art,” “Poetry” and “Love.”

While the lawyers and officials debated the technicalities of what constitutes a dorm, the audience was more interested in challenging Singer — and the B.S.A. — to restore the building to something that the community actually wants.

Councilmember Margarita Lopez chastised Singer for “trying to use a loophole to build a building that doesn’t belong to that site.”

“Community facility means community!” Lopez insisted. “It does not mean a community in Utah, it does not mean a community in Brooklyn, it means here!

“In my country, we have a saying, that what you are sticking together with saliva will fall apart,” added the Puerto Rican native reaching for one of the better metaphors of the day. “This is a saliva kind of proposal. It is going to fall apart,” Lopez said, while forcefully urging the B.S.A. to “Deny this proposal!”

Community Board 3 District Manager Susan Stetzer read an equally adamant statement from Congressmember Nydia Velazquez, who called Singer’s plan a “reprehensible” and “immoral” attempt to “manipulate the law.”

“This is an underhanded effort to build twice as large and disrupt the community twice as much,” Velazquez said.

Her sentiment was echoed by Assemblymember Steve Sanders. “By this appeal, he continues to demonstrate duplicity and contempt for the community,” Sanders said of Singer in a written statement read by an aide. “The community gains nothing. The building would not be used by any community groups but instead furthers a trend of overconcentration of institutional buildings that would tip the scale of neighborhood density.”

Also weighing in against the dorm were State Senator Martin Connor and Assemblymember Deborah Glick, who warned of “severe” consequences to the Lower East Side and the rest of the city if developers like Singer were allowed to build giant dorms on spec.

“If this application is successful, it will encourage developers to build buildings with double the floor area on pure speculation,” said Howard Zipser, a lawyer for the adjacent Christodora House, whose luxury condo owners have been battling to save the old P.S. 64 — and their views — and have helped spearhead the recently formed East Village Community Coalition to take on mega-projects like this.

C.B. 3 chairperson David McWaters pointed to the case of 81 E. Third St., where the developer used the community facility bonus to add six extra stories to what was initially supposed to be a residential building. In that case, D.O.B. neglected to ensure that a dormitory lease was in place before granting the extra floor space — a failing the city seems determined not to repeat this time around.

Similarly, Andrew Berman of the Greenwich Village Society for Historical Preservation warned of the prospect of “Trojan Horse dorms — larger than normally-allowed buildings with no educational institutions to fill them,” if Singer’s plan was allowed to set precedent.

Yet some of the most moving testimony came from neighbors of the proposed dorm who spoke of their fears that the area’s unique sense of community will be lost.

“I know of no one who wants a dorm,” said Carolyn Radcliffe, who has lived across the street from P.S. 64 on E. Ninth St. since 1979. She and other neighborhood veterans say the area is already engulfed with bars and young people under 25 — a trend a megadorm would only amplify.

Laurel Van Horne noted that many of the tenements on the block were once sweat-equity homesteads founded by people who fought to preserve places like CHARAS and create community gardens when the city had abandoned the neighborhood. “All of us in this room have a very different concept of what community is,” she said.

“I can’t imagine 800 students in our neighborhood,” added Cathy McCandless, a Ninth St. resident of nearly 30 years, speaking softly, with her hand over her heart. “You’ve heard about the bars, but you haven’t heard about the traffic. I can’t imagine all those students crammed into 9-foot-by-14-foot spaces.”

Roland Legiardi-Laura of the East Village Community Coalition — a group that spans Christodora condo owners, old-time homesteaders, former squatters and concerned renters — complained that since Singer took over the building it had become a “rotting corpse.”

“He has purposely left the building’s windows broken. There are mounds of pigeon dung of up to 2 feet,” Legiardi-Laura claimed.

“The community has already tried to buy the building back,” Legiardi-Laura added, “offering what we feel is a large and very fair profit. But he says he wants in excess of $50 million to sell it back.”

E.V.C.C.’s Michael Rosen was even blunter, calling University House nothing but a front for Singer. “Who are we kidding? It is impossible for the city to police building occupancy after it is already built. That is what they are laying out the building as luxury apartments” — an allegation Singer’s lawyer insisted was baseless because the deed restricts the building to community facility use.

But such technicalities were beside the point to Eric Rassi. “When this went down, Singer was presented as a man who had money and was going to renovate the building for the uses that the community wanted,” said Rassi, who has lived on the Lower East Side for the last 20 years.

“I don’t know about the letter of the law, but the spirit of the law is that the community requires certain functions to be performed on that property.

“How can you have a community facility use that’s against the wishes of the entire community?” he demanded.

The only point of reconciliation came from Reverend Bill Jones of the New York Mission, a storefront church at 149 Avenue B, who urged Singer to “open up his arms to the community,” and find a way to transform all the energy that’s opposing him into support.

Singer, who sat quietly taking notes throughout the hearing, looked up for a moment with a quizzical smile. He should have plenty of time to ponder the suggestion. His lawyers declined to respond directly to the many allegations raised against him at the hearing and instead requested to offer their comments in writing after reviewing the transcripts. As a result, the B.S.A. is not slated to rule on the fate of his dorm proposal until Oct. 18.

By that time, Singer may have even more opposition on his hands. And more pigeon dung.