Lobbyist Capalino now working for old P.S. 64 dorm developers

BY LINCOLN ANDERSON | It turns out that Jim Capalino, the top lobbyist who has been at the center of the storm over the scandalous Rivington House sale, has been lobbying on behalf of none other than the owners of the old P.S. 64 — the former CHARAS / El Bohio.

Andrew Berman, executive director of the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation, said it was only discovered “very recently” that Capalino has been lobbying on behalf of 9th & 10th Street L.L.C.

Records from the Lobbying Bureau of the Office of the City Clerk show that from January 2015 to December 2016, 9th & 10th L.L.C. made three payments to James F. Capalino and Associates for a total of roughly $227,000. The first payment was for $30,000, with the “target” being the Department of Buildings, and the purpose being for “determination regarding real property.” The second was for $86,666, with the targets listed as D.O.B., along with “councilmembers and community boards,” with the intended purpose stated as “aiding the client in seeking various approvals for its property.” The third payment was for $120,000, with the target again D.O.B. and the purpose only listed as “non-procurement.”

A spokesperson for Capalino admitted in an e-mail that the lobbyist is currently repping the owners of the old P.S. 64 — and has been doing so for nearly three years, in fact.

“Confirming we are engaged by 9th and 10th street LLC, and have been since 4/10/14,” he said.

Capalino represented VillageCare when it was trying to get the Rivington House deed restriction for use as a nonprofit nursing home lifted and also get the city to waive the usual hefty payment for doing so. Capalino has stated he was no longer under contract with VillageCare in February 2016 when the Forsyth St. building (coincidentally, also a former school) was sold to the Allure group, which later flipped it, at a huge profit, for market-rate residential redevelopment to Slate, a company that Capalino was representing on a separate property.

In the wake of the outcry over that shady deal that shocked the city and rocked the de Blasio administration, a stop-work order remains in effect on the former Rivington House building.

The old P.S. 64, the former CHARAS / El Bohio Cultural and Community Center, has sat vacant for about 15 years. Developer Gregg Singer plans to create a dorm there. Villager file photo by Lincoln Anderson
The old P.S. 64, the former CHARAS / El Bohio Cultural and Community Center, has sat vacant for about 15 years. Developer Gregg Singer plans to create a dorm there. Villager file photo by Lincoln Anderson

Returning to the old P.S. 64, at E. Ninth St. and Avenue B, Gregg Singer, a member of the building’s ownership group, bought it at city auction in 1998 for $3.15 million. Today, it’s worth from $30 million to $40 million.

In 2001, Singer succeeded in evicting CHARAS, a Puerto Rican-led cultural and community center. But the stately turn-of-the-century building has sat empty ever since, as the community has battled — and repeatedly defeated — a succession of Singer’s development schemes.

His previous plans involved erecting a towering dorm on the property, and later, scaling back the tower a bit while razing all of the existing historic building except for its front facade. But then in 2006, the Bloomberg administration landmarked the old P.S. 64, saving it from demolition and severely limiting what Singer could do with it.

The building carries a deed restriction for community-facility use, and Singer — as he has been trying to do for years, in one form or another — is currently attempting to develop a dorm there, which, if done legally, would conform with the city’s “Dorm Rule” regulations.

However, a full stop-work order has been in effect on the property since August 2015, which, according to the D.O.B. Web site, was issued “for intent to revoke permits and approvals.”

A year earlier, the city had ruled that contracts Singer had entered into with The Cooper Union for dorm use, as well as for the Joffrey Ballet School Concert Group Program for a nonprofit with housing accommodations, for a combined total of 200 beds, did not meet the agency’s criteria for either category.

The backstory is that about 10 years ago, the city tightened up its regulations for dormitories. Developers had been exploiting the community-facility-use regulation — which allows dorms to be constructed taller than residential buildings. The developers would say they were building a dorm, then, once it was built, try to use the building residentially.

The new, improved “Dorm Rule” that emerged requires that developers have firm 10-year contracts in place with accredited universities before they can proceed with any construction — and also that 100 percent of the area under contract be accounted for in the plans. The new rule was intended not only to keep developers from getting license to construct overly large buildings, but also to keep developers like Singer from potentially saying they were creating a university dorm, only to convert it into — in Singer’s case — essentially, a youth hostel.

Also, ironically, in the case of the old P.S. 64, community activists and local politicians simply don’t want the building to be a dorm anyway — they want it returned as a community center. So the Dorm Rule has been a bulwark against getting an actual dorm at the location.

This past May, however, D.O.B. issued a new ruling on its own Dorm Rule, watering it down, according to Berman and the E. Ninth St. project’s other opponents. Berman provided a copy of the ruling to The Villager. Dated May 26, it refers specifically to 605 E. Ninth St., and is signed by Martin Reinholz, the Manhattan borough D.O.B. commissioner who, according to lobbying records, was the person at the agency that Capalino was lobbying for this project. Reinholz’s ruling basically states that D.O.B. agrees with the applicant’s request — namely, that a lease for “a portion” of the building represents a lease for the whole building, and thus allows the applicant to do work throughout the building, such as on things like mechanical systems and common areas, not just in the portion that is actually leased.

G.V.S.H.P., the East Village Community Coalition, soccc64 (Save Our Community Center) and local politicians oppose this allegedly weakened version of the Dorm Rule — which would allow interior construction work to restart at 605 E. Ninth St. — from being implemented, and are blasting it as the “Fraction Rule.”

Mayoral candidate hugs lobbyist Jim Capalino at recent Stuyvesant Town rally for de Blasio. Villager file photo by Jefferson Siegel
Mayoral candidate Bill de Blasio hugged lobbyist Jim Capalino at a Stuyvesant Town rally for him during the mayor’s first campaign. A friend of de Blasio, Capalino has “bundled” more than $40,000 from donors for the mayor’s current re-election campaign. Villager file photo by Jefferson Siegel

Asked whether Capalino has been specifically lobbying to water down the Dorm Rule, his spokesperson said they were declining further comment for this article.

Berman said, so far, this new D.O.B. interpretation hasn’t been implemented — and that it’s important to keep it that way: If the agency starts using the weaker ruling, it would be hard to get it to stop, he warned.

“We’re trying to get the ruling reversed,” Berman said. “They haven’t issued any permits under this new ruling yet. But we’re very worried that, at any moment, they could.”

Subsequent to the city nixing Singer’s plan two years ago, The Cooper Union and Joffrey Ballet School Concert Group have dropped out of the mix. The new “anchor tenant” for the dorm is Adelphi University, which is based on Long Island, but does have a Manhattan facility in Hudson Square at 75 Varick St. Singer signed a lease with the school this past August.

The Adelphi lease states it is for 196 beds on the second and third floors. The rooms are listed as “4-bed units” and “7-bed units.” The rent would start at $2,075 per bed for the 2018-19 academic year, rising by 4 percent per year till 2027 when it would be $2,953 per bed. Rooms would come equipped with electric stoves, microwave ovens and flat-screen TVs, while common areas would include the likes of a cafe, foosball and ping pong, theater / media room, fitness center and two yoga studios.

However, raising another red flag for the project’s opponents, under the lease, Adelphi is only required to rent a minimum of 20 beds per nine-month school year, which might not sound like a lot, but actually would bring in a cool $373,500.

Critics call this a “right of first refusal,” and say it also violates the original intent of the Dorm Rule.

The building might be known as “University Square,” although it could be another name, the lease notes.

The new proposed use for the building, known as a “Schedule A,” that is actually listed on the D.O.B. Web site, differs a bit from the lease. Currently, it lists 82 dorm rooms for Adelphi: 41 rooms apiece on the building’s second and fourth — but not third — floors. The third floor instead is listed only as “Yoga studio for Adelphi University.” A dance instruction studio formerly planned for Joffrey Ballet on the fourth floor is listed as “Delete” — which might indicate it’s no longer part of the plan. There is no use listed for the first and fifth floors, and there is only a 1,000-square-foot storage room for 113 bicycles listed for the basement.

A note at the bottom of this outline of uses states that space currently not under contract for any tenants in the plan includes 32 sleeping rooms on the fifth floor and 17 on the fifth-floor mezzanine, plus vacant spaces in the basement, on the first floor, fourth floor, fifth floor and fifth-floor mezzanine.

These spaces “shall not be occupied unless the [certificate of occupancy] is amended and a lease from a school [and / or] nonprofit entity and a restrictive declaration are provided.”

Berman was leery of the yoga studio being listed for the third floor, charging that it’s not an allowable use under the Dorm Rule. Plus, there’s no indication about how small or large this purported yoga studio would even be.

“A lot of space is still listed as vacant,” the preservationist said dismissively of the building’s current plan. “It doesn’t even look as if they have half of the building accounted for. We don’t feel they legally have the occupancy” — meaning to get a certificate of occupancy from the city.

Regarding the nebulous yoga space, Berman said, “Nothing against yoga. We’re not saying students shouldn’t have yoga. It’s about whether they’ve fulfilled the requirements for occupancy for dormitory space.

“They keep trying to find some institution that they can claim puts all the pieces in place,” Berman said, skeptically.

The previous leases with The Cooper Union and Joffrey Ballet didn’t pass muster. Just like the Adelphi lease, The Cooper Union lease was also structured to give the school a “right of first refusal” on 200 dorm beds at 605 E. Ninth St. — but that’s not the same as committing to a 10-year lease, Berman noted.

“This is the same dorm-for-hire scam Singer has been trying to run for years,” the activist said. Meanwhile, the application for Joffrey Ballet included “misinformation” that disqualified it, according to D.O.B.

More to the point, under the original Dorm Rule, according to Berman, work cannot be done inside the building anywhere until basically every inch of space is accounted for in a lease or leases. So, the fact that three floors currently are unleased while another is vaguely described as a yoga studio of indeterminate size would mean, under the original Dorm Rule, no interior construction work could currently be done.

Councilmember Rosie Mendez reported that, after the new ruling became known, she met about the issue with Jon Paul Lupo, director of the Mayor’s Office of City Legislative Affairs.

“I told him that this decision by D.O.B. back in May was contrary to their own rule,” she said. “And they said, ‘If it’s contrary to the rules and to the law, then the Department of Buildings can’t do it.’”

In addition, in October, Borough President Gale Brewer sent a letter — co-signed by Mendez, state Senator Brad Hoylman and Assemblymember Brian Kavanagh — to Rick Chandler, the D.O.B. commissioner, asking that the new ruling be rescinded. However, Mendez said Brewer did not get a response. So Mendez is going to write to the Mayor’s Office of City Legislative Affairs and also follow up with them, as well, she said.

“That was a verbal, that was in a meeting,” Mendez said of Lupo’s assurances to her, indicating that she wants to see something solid in writing.

“I will do whatever is necessary to enforce the rules,” Mendez vowed.

However, a spokesperson for 9th & 10th L.L.C. said that Berman, Brewer, Mendez and the other opponents are all off base, and that there has been no change to the Dorm Rule.

“There is no new modified rule,” he said. “The rule hasn’t changed since it was adopted and it has always included provision for a lease for part of a building. If anyone is trying to change something, it’s the elected officials who would like the city to change the deed restriction from ‘community facility as defined in the Zoning Resolution…’ to community benefit or community amenity, but that’s not what the deed says.”

(Told this response, Berman explained that the spokesperson was apparently referring to the effort to get a community center back in the building.)

“A part of a building is being leased for at least 10 years by an accredited school for students. That’s a dorm under the Dorm Rule,” the 9th & 10th L.L.C. spokesperson asserted.

“The floors not rented by Adelphi — or some other qualified use — will be left vacant,” he added. “Although I expect that once construction is underway, the rest will get rented before it opens. And in case whomever is feeding this to you says that this could be violated, no certificate of occupancy will be issued until the entire building is rented, with temporary C of O’s renewed every couple of months by the borough commissioner — which means inspections whenever D.O.B. wants.”

As far as the yoga room, the developers’ spokesperson maintained, it’s a legally permitted “accessory use” to the principal use.

The spokesperson confirmed that both The Cooper Union and Joffrey are no longer part of the plan.

Meanwhile, asked for clarification of the reported weakening of the Dorm Rule, a D.O.B. spokesperson flatly denied there has been any change.

“D.O.B. issued no such ruling,” he said. “Under the city’s Zoning Resolution, college or student dormitories are a community-facility use.”

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