BY SARAH FERGUSON | Local leaders are pressuring Mayor de Blasio to follow through with his pledge to buy back the former P.S. 64 school building in the East Village, after a crack spotted on its east wall forced the temporary evacuation of four neighboring tenements on Wednesday.
Although city inspectors later ruled the building did not pose an imminent hazard, residents on E. 10th St., who were forced out of their homes in the cold for hours, fear it’s only a matter of time before something worse happens.
“This is a blight on the city and the Lower East Side,” declared East Village Councilmember Carlina Rivera at a rally Thursday outside the crumbling, turn-of-the century landmark.
The building has stood empty and in disrepair for the last 20 years due to the city’s protracted stalemate with the owner, Gregg Singer, who has been seeking to convert it to a multi-school dormitory.
In 2006, Singer went so far as to hack off the terracotta trim from the building’s ornate dormer windows in a failed effort to block the landmarking of the school — a tactic that left the windows and large areas of brick exposed to the elements.
“At this point, it’s not just an eyesore, it’s a danger to our community,” said Rivera, pointing to the more than 30 open violations for everything from unsafe scaffolding to cracks in the facade and masonry.
Rivera and the area’s other elected officials are now using the building’s deteriorating conditions as leverage to pressure de Blasio to restore it as a community and arts facility along the lines of CHARAS/El Bohio, the Puerto Rican-run center that occupied the building before former Mayor Rudy Giuliani sold it to Singer at auction in 1998.
“It’s going to take another mayor to change this and do the right thing,” City Comptroller Scott Stringer declared at Thursday’s press conference. “We need Mayor de Blasio to keep his word,” he said, referring to the offer de Blasio made during a 2017 campaign forum to “look into reacquiring” the building for the community.
Stringer said he would make restoring the building a top priority during his budget briefing with the mayor, and after the rally, a spokesperson confirmed that he had already spoken to de Blasio about it.
State Senator Brad Hoylman accused Singer of engaging in a strategy of “demolition by neglect.”
“Mayor de Blasio, honor your promise,” he told the news cameras. “Let’s save CHARAS before it’s too late.”
Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer said the building would be a “perfect opportunity” for eminent domain.
A spokesperson for the mayor said: “We’re in contact with representatives for the owner and we are exploring options with them.
Just what options the mayor has is unclear. Singer has repeatedly said he has no interest in selling. On Thursday, a spokesperson for Singer blasted the notion of the city reclaiming the building for some as-yet-to-be-identified group or use as “un-American and unconstitutional.”
“It is fundamentally wrong for the government to sell property at public auction and then demand it back, just so it can hand it over to another private owner as a political favor,” said Singer’s PR rep Nicole Epstein in an e-mail to The Villager.
If the city were to pursue eminent domain, it would have to pay market value for the property, which Singer purchased for a scant $3.15 million.
Singer told The Villager he has spent more than $50 million on maintenance, legal costs and his ongoing efforts to market and develop the property — monies he claims he’d have to be compensated for.
In fact, Singer claims the city could be liable for up to $250 million if a judge were to consider the value of the building “built out” — a figure that State Assemblyman Harvey Epstein called “ludicrous” when told about it at Thursday’s rally.
Nevertheless, Epstein believes it would be worthwhile to reacquire the 152,000-square-foot property, even it means paying Singer many times what he bought it for.
“If we lose this building, we lose it forever,” Epstein argued. “Our schools don’t have gyms. We need space for after-school programs. We need this. We’re already losing so much community space,” he added, pointing to pending sale of the Boys Club on Avenue A.
Singer for his part blamed the city for the building’s deteriorating conditions.
“How can I fix the building if they won’t give me a building permit?” he demanded. “We are in court trying to get a judge to force the city to issue a building permit because the city refuses to issue it.
“None of this would be happening if the city would just let me move forward with the dorm plan,” he said. “It’s so silly.”
He accused city and elected officials of overplaying safety concerns as a ploy to force him out of the building.
“This is a pressure tactic,” he told The Villager on Wednesday when the block was still cordoned off by police and fire officials. “They want us to give up and sell the building back. It’s all bullshit. There’s no imminent danger. Everything is the same as it’s been.”
Singer said the crack snaking down the eastern facade had “been there for years,” and said a private surveyor had recently told him the school was in relatively “good shape” for an empty building.
Ever the salesman, Singer even invited this reporter inside the gutted husk of the former school to lobby for the benefits of his “University House” dorm scheme.
“It’s perfect for the community,” he said. “It’s perfect for the stores. Right now there’s a lot of [store] vacancy. They need people, and the students need space,” he maintained. As he spoke, he stood in the former office of CHARAS, which has been refurbished with clean white tables and colorful renderings of the swanky dorm suites and recreation rooms.
Outside, Singer was confronted by a neighboring property owner.
“What’s going on?” demanded Ricky Seltzer, who owns a four-story tenement adjacent to the old school. “You’re depreciating all the property values on the block,” she told the developer. “I’ve been standing in the cold for five hours. What am I going to tell my tenants? God forbid something happens. I can’t have this on my conscience. I have to take out extra insurance because of you,” she railed.
One of her tenants, Jason Goodrow, was eyeing the large crack on the top northeastern corner of the school, which is directly above his bedroom window.
“I have two small children, so it’s alarming on a daily basis,” he said.