BY LINCOLN ANDERSON | In “The Wizard of Oz,” after the Wicked Witch of the West melts, the Munchkins all rejoice by singing, “Ding, dong, the witch is dead!”
Since the famed musical’s lyricist, “Yip” Harburg, went to school at the old P.S. 64, now would be the time, if ever, to sing something similar about Gregg Singer, who for 25 years has played the role of the bad guy, vainly trying to redevelop the former beloved community center. “Ding, dong, the developer is gone!” anyone?
On Dec. 20, activists who for a quarter century resisted Singer’s obsessive quest announced that the historic East Village building finally is out of his grasp.
In a convoluted conclusion, an auction of the property — formerly home to the CHARAS/El Bohio Cultural and Community Center — that was set for early November was nixed after the debt on the building by Madison Realty Capital was reportedly bought for $55 million by an entity called 605 East 9th Community Holdings.
It’s speculated Aaron Sosnick, a wealthy neighboring hedge-funder, is the principal behind the entity.
Singer purchased the decommissioned public school, on E. Ninth Street between Avenues B and C, for $3.2 million in 1998 under Mayor Giuliani at an auction of city-owned properties. He should have seen trouble coming, though, when CHARAS activists released live crickets — admittedly, barely alive, after being smuggled in in sealed manila envelopes — to disrupt the auction. Per the plan, as the groggy bugs struggled to hop, women jumped up on chairs and started shrieking in mock distress.
Singer’s efforts first to demolish and then later renovate the existing property — which has a deed restriction for community use — into a student dorm all failed in the face of community opposition, plus resistance from City Hall, which deemed his dorm plans deceptive.
MRC foreclosed on the property in 2018 after Singer failed to pay back his building loan, forcing an auction, which Singer then evaded by declaring bankruptcy this past March. Eventually, though, a judge signed off on the auction. Yet, there were no bidders, with everyone scared off by the community’s besting Singer’s schemes at every turn.
On Dec. 20, the group Save Our Community Center, former CHARAS/ P.S. 64 a.k.a. SOCCC-64, released a statement, saying they were “thrilled to report that the building that once housed CHARAS/El Bohío is no longer in the hands of Gregg Singer.”
“We have fought for over 20 years to stop the now former owner from demolishing the landmarked building and violating the community-use restrictions on the property,” they said. “We salute the purchaser of the loan note on the building and look forward to working to restore our once-vital center for future generations.
“Since the auction of the building in 1998 and the eviction of the [CHARAS] center in 2001, community advocates and watchdogs persisted in safeguarding the landmark. Throughout this long-fought battle, the support of the LES community and all of our current and former elected officials has held strong. Our allies have fought side by side with us over the past decades to foil Gregg Singer’s repeated attempts to develop the building as a glorified youth hostel.”
Local politicians and activists who helped lead the fight praised the outcome. It was, of course, deeply gratifying for Chino Garcia, the executive director of CHARAS, Inc.
“CHARAS was beloved as a center for the arts, activism and social justice, a place the community could gather, where artists could create and activists could meet,” Garcia said. “We look forward to the day we reopen the center and restore services to the community.”
“For more than 20 years, activists, elected officials and community members have been working to save CHARAS, and return this beloved center to the community,” Councilmember Carlina Rivera said. “I am proud to fight alongside the local coalition to preserve the cultural heritage of the Lower East Side. I hope that, through continued organizing and advocacy, CHARAS can be reclaimed by the community that played a pivotal role in creating a space for cultural expression and a source of joy for all residents.”
State Senator Brian Kavanagh said, “While the original sale was ostensibly supposed to ensure that the site would serve a ‘community use,’ the transaction went forward without any specific plan for the site, and it has been put to no productive use in the ensuing decades. I am glad that the site is under new ownership, and I urge the new owner to work with community leaders, elected officials, artists and activists to restore the property for genuine community use — with all the promise it holds to provide invaluable services, resources and space for the community to gather.”
“Today marks a critical step in the effort to save this pillar of our community from terrible schemes to change the character of the building and community,” Assemblymember Harvey Epstein said. “I look forward to the day we can reopen the doors to CHARAS/El Bohío and allow it to serve as a hub for artists and activists and operate as a community center for years to come.”
Andrea Gordillo, chairperson of Community Board 3, said, “Community Board 3 supports the return of 605 E. Ninth Street, the former P.S. 64 school building, known as CHARAS/El Bohio, to community and cultural use. In a 2013 resolution, and a later 2017 resolution, we have articulated and demanded the need to reclaim this resource, we have hosted well-attended town halls, and most recently brought this to the attention of Mayor Eric Adams in a letter. We remain committed to this process.”
“The long nightmare of Gregg Singer’s ownership of CHARAS/El Bohío Community Center is finally over,” said Andrew Berman, executive director of Village Preservation. “This critical New York City landmark must be preserved and should return to serving our city and our community as it did since its inception, before that virtuous cycle of service was interrupted by former Mayor Giuliani’s sale of the building to Singer. We now must work to ensure this former public school and community/cultural center is restored and returned to productive use.”
“CHARAS/El Bohio was literally Le Corazon de Loisaida,” Carolyn Ratcliffe of the 9th B/C Block Association said. “Our block association met there, as well as many other community groups that served our neighbors. It provided space for workshops, meetings, entertainment, arts and cultural activities, daycare/preschool for many. It was the only building that was large enough to host these activities for the immediate area. We need our community center to be returned to serve our neighborhood. It has been sorely missed.”
“Good riddance to Gregg Singer!” declared Susan Howard, organizer of the Save CHARAS Committee/SOCCC-64. “This is a battle against gentrification that will go down in LES history. Viva CHARAS!”
The group’s statement added, “In the coming days, we will begin the work of raising the funds to renovate and restore the building. We look forward to celebrating this victory with the community in the coming months and making plans for the future!”
It wasn’t immediately clear to what extent the wider community would be involved in the planning of the building’s use.
As of Dec. 26, the property’s sale technically still had not been finalized, Howard said.
“The loan note holder put in a credit bid,” she explained. “The sale has not closed yet.”
Howard dodged clarifying if Sosnick is behind 605 East 9th Community Holdings. Sosnick was also behind the purchase of the former Boys Club of New York building, at Avenue A and 10th Street, to keep it away from developers. The Joyce Theater Foundation, which focuses on dance, signed a one-year lease for that building, with hopes of eventually buying it.
As for what kind of uses are foreseen at the old P.S. 64, Howard said, “Nonprofit space, artists space and community space.”
On the other hand, asked what uses she would consider for the building at this early point, Councilmember Rivera expansively told The Village Sun, “I would say, everything.” Rivera said she personally is interested in housing there — possibly artists housing — but admitted she doesn’t know how that idea would go over with all stakeholders.
The Real Deal reported that Singer, not surprisingly, is bitter over the outcome — and that he is still suing.
“Aaron Sosnick has accomplished his documented goal by purchasing the underlying mortgage at a deep discount,” Singer told the pro-development publication. “This kind of corruption and malevolent wrongdoing should not go unpunished. Unfortunately, Mayor de Blasio allowed himself to be bought in allowing this to happen.”
Charging there was a conspiracy to keep him from developing the building, Singer is suing the city and Sosnick for more than $100 million in damages.