What a way to end last year, as the Downtown community notched two tremendous victories on long- and hard-fought issues. These were nothing short of epic struggles.
In Greenwich Village, local residents, with a big assist from their political officials, were able to save a critical, full-service, 24-hour supermarket — the Morton Williams, at Bleecker Street and LaGuardia Place — and prevent the area from becoming a food desert.
A few years ago, we read a columnist’s piece in one of the daily tabloids, in which she pooh-poohed the hype around a popular supermarket chain’s arrival in Brooklyn. Celebrities — she cited Madonna — don’t come to New York City for supermarkets, she sniffed.
We can’t speak for the Material Girl, but we know from experience covering community news that supermarkets absolutely are one of local residents’ biggest concerns.
And the Morton Williams, in particular, has a very close tie to the community. The decision by owner Avi Kaner to have the store be 24/7 was made shortly after it opened in 2001 — just days before the 9/11 terrorist attack devastated Lower Manhattan; the store became the closest market to the restricted-access “frozen zone.” More recently, the supermarket’s essential service was highlighted again during the COVID pandemic.
Community Board 2 did yeoman’s work in holding New York University to its long-standing pledge to build a new public school at the market site. In fact, the university promised long ago — decades before the block’s 2010 rezoning — there would be a school on the block.
However, N.Y.U. dropped the ball on its promise to provide a swing space for the market in its new Mercer Street building, if the school were built. In the end, while the critical need for the market was evident, it was clear that, right now, there is not a need for the school. Yet, the agreement reached between N.Y.U. and the School Construction Authority gives the city the option to build in 13 years — plus the chance to think it all through more carefully.
In the East Village, the community’s finally prying developer Gregg Singer’s hands off the old P.S. 64 school building is nothing short of remarkable. It truly shows the power of a unified community and of committed local political leadership.
It was, literally, a generational struggle. Singer bought the building — then home to the CHARAS/El Bohio Cultural and Community Center — in 1998 at an auction of city-owned properties under Mayor Giuliani. Armando Perez, who was CHARAS’s artistic director, vowed then that he would die before seeing CHARAS lose the property. Tragically, he was killed by drug dealers angered at him for distributing fliers calling them out in his wife’s building.
Perez was also a Democratic district leader. His political allies and successors — including Councilmembers Margarita Lopez, Rosie Mendez and Carlina Rivera, and other local elected officials — all subsequently stood firm against Singer’s schemes for the historic building. Leading the charge to restore the building to community use were of course Chino Garcia, CHARAS’s executive director, organizer Susan Howard and Village Preservation, among others.
Along the way of this long, drawn-out fight, we learned that no less than Yip Harburg, the famed lyricist of “The Wizard of Oz,” was an alumnus of the old P.S. 64. Roland Legiardi-Laura, who sadly is no longer with us, and the East Village Community Coalition helped unearth that local history. Similarly, we learned about vaunted chief schools architect C.B.J. Snyder and the health benefits (better air circulation) of “H”-design (when viewed from above), turn-of-the century school buildings.
The developer’s plans ranged from tearing the building down and erecting a huge, 24-story student dorm tower, to ripping off the place’s back half and adding a tower, to, more recently, trying to renovate the existing building as a dorm. Along the way, Singer brutally hacked exterior ornaments off the structure to try to block it from being landmarked by the city. Out of spite, he advertised it would become a shelter for juvenile parolees and battered women.
But thanks to the community’s resistance — plus Singer’s amassing a debt that was finally bought by a local “angel investor,” who has subsequently closed on the sale — the building is now back in the community’s hands. There isn’t much information on who the new owner — 605 East Ninth Community Holdings — is, other than “a philanthropic entity.” But it’s believed Aaron Sosnick, a local hedge-funder, is involved.
According to a real estate firm that works with nonprofits: “The new owner intends to initiate a process that will achieve its long-term goal of returning 605 E. Ninth St. to community use. The process will include input from members of the community.” The real estate firm said the owner does not wish to be identified.
Meanwhile, Singer is suing, claiming the opponents and the city conspired to keep him from redeveloping the property. But the building is at last out of his clutches.
Somewhere up above, Armando Perez is grinning and raising his fist, just like back when he beat the Paganistas on election night.