BY SARAH FERGUSON | Developer Gregg Singer has made plenty of tone-deaf appeals in his efforts to convert the old P.S. 64 school building on E. Ninth St. into a college dormitory.
But his latest gambit — hiring a lobbying firm best known for backing Donald Trump’s projects — appears to be backfiring.
As The Villager reported last week, Singer is paying Gotham Government Relations $12,000 a month to lobby for his stymied dorm deal. Gotham G.R. is the PR firm that helped launch Trump’s presidential campaign by paying actors to cheer for him as he made his fateful descent down the elevator at Trump Tower.
Gotham G.R. appears to have used the same tactic — and the same casting firm — to hire actors to boost turnout at the rally they staged at City Hall last Friday in support of Singer’s latest dorm plan.
The Daily News obtained an e-mail offering people “$50 CASH” to “beef up attendance” for a rally called by the newly formed group “East Village Cares.”
The e-mail called for “individuals of all ages who currently live in the East Village / Lower East Side,” or have “close friends / relatives in the area” to “speak and advocate about the neighborhood” and “protest blocking the development of college dorms at the old P.S. 64 building located at East 9th Street and Ave B.”
Nicole Epstein, an associate with Gotham G.R., told The Villager she had “had no knowledge whatsoever” of the e-mail and suggested it could be an effort to “sabotage” their campaign.
That seems a stretch considering the e-mail appears to have been sent by someone associated with Extra Mile Casting — the same firm that Gotham G.R. hired to provide “support” (i.e. actors) for Trump’s presidential announcement in 2016.
The e-mail directed anyone interested in participating in the dorm rally to visit EastVillageCares.org, a Web site that is registered to Gotham’s founding partner Brad Gerstman.
A flier for the event put out by East Village Cares listed the group’s mailing address as 1339 Franklin Ave. in Garden City — which is also the address of Gotham G.R.’s Long Island office.
“Note this is a real live protest, and protestors MUST look real and be enthusiastic and verbal about the subject. Signs will be provided by production,” the e-mail stated. (Asked to respond, Extra Mile wrote in an e-mail: “We aren’t able to help you with this.”)
In fact, the rally on Friday drew about 30 mostly unenthusiastic participants, including several from outside the community who seemed perplexed when asked why they cared about a dorm project in the East Village.
“We’re working — I’m working,” responded one man from Harlem who was holding a “Restore P.S. 64!” sign. When asked what he meant by “working,” he clammed up. “No comment,” he said and smiled.
Melissa Williams, a finance worker who lives in the West Village, showed up bearing a picture of East Village Councilmember-elect Carlina Rivera, captioned with the phrase: “Paid 4 by Aaron Sosnick. Fake as it gets.”
Asked why she cared about Rivera’s stance on a proposed dorm that isn’t in her neighborhood, Williams responded, “I have family in the East Village.”
The rally was headed up by Gotham’s lead partner David Schwartz and Epstein, who led the crowd in chants of “We want the dorm!”
“This is a community that is fed up! This is a community that is saying, ‘Enough is enough!’ ” Epstein shouted.
Epstein blamed politicians and “wealthy individuals” for “colluding to obstruct” Singer’s efforts to “restore” the building for the community. In particular, she singled out “billionaire” benefactor Aaron Sosnick, who lives in a penthouse at the Christodora House, a condominium tower that sits adjacent to the old P.S. 64.
“These people are trying not to have a college dorm put up, all because a rich guy is paying for it,” she shouted as the protesters behind her booed.
Sosnick, who operates a hedge fund worth an estimated $4 billion, is on the board of the East Village Community Coalition, which led the campaign to landmark the old P.S. 64 in 2006. Although the landmarking blocked Singer’s earlier plan to erect a 27-story dormitory tower at the site, it hasn’t stopped him from seeking to develop the existing five-story school building into student housing. The building, which Singer purchased in 1998 for $3.15 million, has a deed restriction and can only be developed for “community facility use.”
Over the last decade, Singer has sought to lease space in the building to various schools, including The Cooper Union, the Joffrey Ballet and now Adelphi University, which most recently offered to pay $373,500 a year for the right to rent out two floors of the building.
But Singer’s effort, Epstein alleged, had been foiled by Councilmember Mendez and Andrew Berman, director of the Greenwich Village Society for Historical Preservation, who she claimed had succeeded in blocking further construction in the site. Berman’s name, she said, was “all over the documents” they received through a Freedom of Information Act request for city correspondence relating to Singer’s dorm plans filed with the Department of Buildings.
G.V.S.H.P., she noted, received a $250,000 donation last year from Sosnick’s charity La Vida Feliz Foundation, and Sosnick has also been a leading contributor to the area’s elected officials, including Mendez, her successor Rivera and state Senator Brad Hoylman, who received $11,000 from him last year.
Reached after the rally, Hoylman scoffed at the notion that his opposition to Singer’s dorm plan was bought and paid for.
“I was a vocal supporter of CHARAS,” the community group that occupied the school building when Singer bought it, “long before I ever thought about running for the Senate,” he said.
“This is astroturfing at its most comical,” Hoylman said of the rally. “It’s straight out of Donald Trump’s playbook, and it’s not going to fly in the East Village.”
Hoylman confirmed that he had consulted with Sosnick and many others in the community — including those who feel the building has sat empty too long.
“Bottom line,” he said, “I don’t feel that a dorm is an appropriate community use for this building, and I’m confident that represents the vast majority of opinion in the area.”
Berman similarly dismissed the allegations against G.V.S.H.P.
“Gregg Singer is a serial liar who has now hired Donald Trump’s PR firm to pay actors to stand at City Hall rallies and make up allegations against real community groups,” he wrote in a statement to the Villager.
“Mr. Singer knows that he does not have a leg to stand on, which is why he has been unable to get permits for his bogus [dorm] facilities through three of the most pro-development administrations in New York City history.
“This is the last desperate gasp of someone who knows he has lost the fight, as evidenced by the mayor indicating his intention to retake this historic community center from Singer, who has done nothing but try to destroy it, and allow it to rot, and attempt to fill with illegal uses,” Berman added.
Sosnick, who was traveling, said he could not respond in person to the smear campaign. But he sent in this statement via e-mail: “I’m fortunate to be trustee of a foundation with resources to support fine organizations like G.V.S.H.P. and E.V.C.C. It’s an honor and a pleasure to be able to help them give communities and neighborhoods a voice and make sure rules are followed as real estate development happens in New York City.”
Admittedly, the notion that Sosnick is essentially paying politicians to obstruct Singer’s dorm is a bit rich, coming from Gotham. One of the lobbyists who contacted this reporter to spin that story is Richard Lipsky, who was convicted in 2012 of paying bribes to a state senator to act on behalf of his clients. Lipsky is now lobbying on behalf of Singer’s LLC, records show.
Berman suggested Singer may be getting desperate. This month, a judge ordered Singer to pay a settlement of more than $8 million to his investors, who have sued him for failing to develop the building while continuing to pay himself management fees of up to $30,000 a month.
With Mayor Bill de Blasio saying he’s looking into “reacquiring” the old P.S. 64 “for the community,” Berman and other veterans of the CHARAS struggle hope the city may now have more leverage to negotiate a way out of this 20-year impasse.
But exactly how the city could “reacquire” the building, and at what cost, are not easy questions to answer, especially since Singer says the property is now appraised at more than $80 million — even before renovation.
Singer insists the building is not for sale, and is currently appealing the stop-work order from the Department of Buildings, which rejected his latest lease with Adelphi because it only committed the university to rent a minimum of 20 beds.
Mendez laughed at Epstein’s charge that she had unduly swayed the D.O.B. against Singer’s plan, noting that she, too, often waits months for a response from the agency.
“If Gregg Singer wanted to have a dorm there, he could have had one a long time ago,” she said. “He just needs to submit a valid lease from a college or licensed institution.
“What he keeps submitting is a license, not a lease, because it says the organizations can give back the beds they don’t use to the owner to rent out himself,” Mendez argued.
Singer says that’s a nonissue and insists that any students who move into the dorm would have to come from educational institutions that meet the criteria defined under the city’s so-called dorm rule.
What’s ironic, of course, is that by hiring Gotham to concoct a trumped-up protest, Singer undermined his cause along with the claims of those in the community who say they are fed up with the ongoing stalemate.
Not all the people who showed up on Friday were actors. At the heart of East Village Cares are three local residents who say they’ve become disillusioned with what they feel are vague promises by Mendez and others to restore the building along the lines of the old CHARAS community center — something they view as unrealistic.
The most vocal is Jorge de Yarza, a resident of E. 11th St. and owner of Donostia, a tapas bar on Avenue B. De Yarza says he and others have collected more than 900 signatures from people in the area who would support having a dorm instead of a “vacant eyesore.”
During the primary-election campaign, de Yarza went so far as to help Singer pass out leaflets promoting opponents of Carlina Rivera, in hopes of electing a councilmember who would be more sympathetic to Singer’s dorm project.
Asked why he feels so strongly, de Yarza accused Mendez of “lying” to him about what constitutes a legal dorm. He also said the empty school building has become a magnet for vagrants and drug users who congregate on the block and make their way into the alley behind his business. He has met with Singer and architects for the dorm project, and blames Mendez and her allies for the stalemate, which he said perpetuates “all this filth” on the block.
Joining him was Paul Engler, a former dancer who says he used to rehearse at CHARAS. Engler said he, too, voted for Mendez and actively supported the campaign to landmark the old P.S. 64. But he says he’s now come to believe that the dorm would be a good option for the community and says he feels “duped” by Mendez’s opposition.
Engler was echoed by his wife, Temple Carr, a luxury jewelry designer, who complained that the vacant building had become a safety hazard and was attracting trash and rats. Engler and Carr live in a townhouse on Avenue B overlooking Tompkins Square Park that’s been written up in design publications. Carr denounced “all this mythology” she said had evolved over the years around Singer, who she portrayed as a father and “community-oriented person,” who has been unfairly “demonized” by opponents of the dorm.
Yet her view of Singer’s role in this stalemate seemed equally one-sided.
Asked why she didn’t fault Singer for chopping the ornate dormers off the building, or for not cleaning and fixing the heaved-up sidewalk on E. Ninth St., which is regularly covered with dog feces, Carr insisted Singer was “spending a lot of money” to maintain the school even though the city won’t let him develop. Instead she took a shot at La Plaza Cultural, a community garden located down the block on the corner of Avenue C.
“Look at all the dog shit and rats outside La Plaza,” Carr complained. When this reporter, who (full disclosure) happens to be a member of La Plaza, questioned why Carr would hold a volunteer-run garden to the same standard as a man who pays himself more than $100,000 a year to manage a for-profit property, she scoffed: “That place is full of trash, it’s a dump, an eyesore” she said of the garden, which was renamed after Armando Perez, one of CHARAS’s founders, after his death in 1999.
A few days after the rally, East Village Cares updated its Web site to include a complaint about La Plaza Cultural, which it characterized as “ugly, dirty, rat-infested and weird. Plus they do a sloppy job of upkeep on the outside / public area. This area needs to be addressed.”
East Village Cares has not, however, removed the photo on its homepage that erroneously shows a street scene from Greenwich Village.