Judge blocks work to strip old P.S. 64’s historic facade


By Lincoln Anderson

East Village activists fighting to landmark the old P.S. 64 on E. Ninth St. won some breathing room on Tuesday, when Appellate Court Judge David Saxe extended an injunction barring developer Gregg Singer from stripping off the building’s terra cotta window trim. Another judge, Faviola Soto, on Monday had refused to extend the temporary injunction the activists had gotten on Saturday barring any demolition over the weekend, after which the activists appealed.

The injunction may be just long enough to save the window ornamentation. The next court date is set for Mon. May 15 — the day before the Landmarks Preservation Commission is to hold a public hearing on whether to designate the building an individual landmark. Saxe has ordered that the injunction on the facade work will last until the appeal case concludes.

Ironically, the appeal will be heard again by Soto.

Michael Rosen of the East Village Community Coalition, which has spearheaded the landmarking effort, proclaimed the injunction “a victory for the Lower East Side and for preservationists around the city.”

With the L.P.C. hearing looming, the activists say the move by Singer, the building’s owner, to remove all the window details is a blatant effort to thwart the landmarking designation.

Last week, Singer first erected sidewalk sheds around the building. At the end of the week, he received a permit from the Department of Buildings to put up scaffolding 540 feet long and 74 feet high around the building, which is required in order to remove the ornaments.

The turn-of-the-century former school at 605 E. Ninth St. was calendared for landmarking in October of last year, meaning any subsequent plans to alter the building had to be approved by the Landmarks Preservation Commission. However, the permit to denude the building’s facade was issued prior to the building’s calendaring, so it remains in effect and Landmarks has no power to block or void it .

Speaking last Friday, Singer attorney Jeffrey Glen said the work would proceed as soon as the scaffolding is up.

“We have repairs that have to be made to the facade — and we are going to make them,” he said. “We’ve had facade permits for two years.” Asked what specifically the work will entail, he said. “There is some removal and there is some repatching with brick.” Asked if all the detailing would be removed, he said, “Whether it all, part or some comes down, I can’t tell you. Certainly that is the subject of the drawings” on file with D.O.B.

However, Rosen of E.V.C.C. said Singer’s plans are clear.

“All he is doing, the entire intent of this, is to stop a building so that it would not be landmarked,” Rosen said. “If he intends to flout the will of the Landmarks Preservation Commission by stripping the building, I hope Landmarks would recognize that and designate regardless. Because every landlord who had a building that they did not want to be designated would find some way to preemptively vandalize it.” If Singer strips the building, Rosen predicted, “It will aggravate the commission — they will know and understand what his clear intention is and they will vote for designation.”

Whether that’s the case, Landmarks isn’t telling. Diane Jackier, an L.P.C. spokesperson, would not say whether ripping off all the building’s window trim would affect the old school’s chances of being designated an individual landmark.

“It is a hypothetical question that I cannot answer at this point,” Jackier said on Tuesday.

As for why Singer waited so long to put the facade permit into effect, Glen said it was because the Department of Buildings did an audit of it. The audit started last December. Singer filed a lawsuit against D.O.B. to make them hurry up and finish the audit, Glen said, after which D.O.B. concluded the audit on April 15 and Singer dropped the lawsuit. A judge signed the paperwork terminating the suit and it was entered into the County Clerk’s records at the end of last month. Singer then moved to put up the sidewalk sheds and scaffolding, Glen said.

“There was an audit and the city agreed everything was in order,” he said. Singer didn’t do the facade work during the audit, not because it would necessarily have been illegal to do so, Glen said, but because he just chose not to.

Glen said Singer still intends to go forward with building a 19-story university dormitory on the site of the old school, though saving and incorporating the old P.S. 64’s Ninth St. facade.

Glen said Singer’s side will make their case at the Landmarks hearing and that they have consultants who are “experts in the landmarking process with expertise in municipal architecture and urban history.”

“We believe that the building is unremarkable,” he said, “not special, not significant and ought not to be landmarked.”

Meanwhile, Glen says the community hasn’t reached out to the developer about what it wants to do with the building. Then again, most wouldn’t consider knocking historic details off the building right before a Landmarks hearing to be a community-friendly move.

The activists’ hope that Buildings might revoke the facade-work permit, looks unfruitful.

“If they have a permit to do the facade work, the scaffolding is there to protect the public during the work from falling debris,” said Jennifer Givner, D.O.B. spokesperson. “The Department of Buildings would have to have significant grounds to revoke a permit — if it was taken out improperly, if information was falsified, if it substantially failed the audit. But I haven’t seen anything like that [in this case]. In order to revoke the scaffold permit, the Department of Buildings would have to revoke the facade work — they go hand in hand.”

Rosen of E.V.C.C. said he didn’t know who asked for the audit. But Givner said usually a special audit is done in response to concerns about a project by the community or local politicians.

At a press conference on Monday morning outside the old P.S. 64, local politicians and community leaders made it clear they won’t give up the fight.

“We call upon the Department of Buildings to revoke this permit right away because we feel the intent was fraudulent,” said Councilmember Rosie Mendez. “Gregg Singer has shown in the past that he does not have a conscience…. We are here today to say we will do whatever is necessary — by any means necessary — to keep him from demolishing any part of this building.”

Asked later to clarify her “by any means necessary” comment, Mendez said, “We are peaceful people. But we will protect this building by any peaceful means we deem necessary.”

Whether those means might include a lawsuit isn’t clear yet.

Congressmember Nydia Velazquez echoed Mendez’s call to D.O.B.

“We are asking the commissioner from the Department of Buildings to revoke this permit,” Velazquez said. She referred to the recent arson-related fire in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, that destroyed a swath of warehouses the community hoped would be eligible for landmarking.

“Coming from Brooklyn, I got to tell you, developers can’t be trusted,” Velazquez warned. “This was one of the most atrocious fires in the last 20 years. This was 10 buildings that the community was wanting to landmark. He’s an insensitive person,” she said of Singer. “And we feel he will use a legal permit to compromise the historic integrity of this building.”

Activists struggling to save the old P.S. 64 had not been optimistic going into court on Tuesday. Yet, despite the surprising ruling to extend the injunction until the end of the court appeal, the only way the building will be completely safe is if Landmarks designates it. In the best-case scenario for the coalition, Landmarks would designate the building on May 16 or sometime soon after that.

“I think it’s incumbent on Landmarks to move expeditiously, because this is a fluid situation,” said Harry Kresky, attorney for the plaintiffs on the injunction. “It’s an important case for Landmarks, because if the Buildings Department lets an owner strip a building nine days before it’s supposed to go to a Landmarks hearing, something is wrong, and the landmarks process will be subverted.”

Yet, if there isn’t a quick resolution and things are drawn out, Roland Legiardi-Laura of E.V.C.C. said the coalition still has “other arrows left in our quiver,” but he didn’t get into details. But he said the building generates such strong feelings that if Singer tries anything, there’s no telling what some might do.

“The coalition is peaceful,” he stressed. “There may be other people that go ballistic. I can’t speak for all 60,000 people in the neighborhood. This building is a source of volatility in the neighborhood. It’s been such for six or seven years. People are deeply connected to it on an emotional level.”