BY LINCOLN ANDERSON | Could the end be drawing nearer for Gregg Singer’s troubled ownership of the old P.S. 64 on E. Ninth Street?
In the meantime, will teenagers running wild inside the derelict building while filming crazy TikTok videos blow the place up?
Last week, a State Supreme Court judge ruled that Madison Realty Capital, Singer’s lender, can move ahead with foreclosure on the vacant property. The news was first reported by The Real Deal.
It wasn’t immediately clear if Singer would try to appeal the decision by Justice Melissa Crane.
Nicole Epstein, the developer’s spokesperson, noted that, although Singer had moved for a stay in a related federal case, Justice Crane stated that the motion involving Madison had been pending since 2019, and so “the moment to secure additional funds or wait for the federal court has passed.”
In 2016, Madison Realty Capital gave Singer a $44 million loan on the property. That September Madison filed for foreclosure after Singer missed a payment deadline.
New mayor, new start?
Epstein said that with Mayor Eric Adams having succeeded Bill de Blasio in office, the city will hopefully stop what she called its “stall tactics” regarding the building’s redevelopment.
“The owner has produced multiple viable tenancies and plans, but unfortunately, the de Blasio administration’s stall tactics hurt both the owner and his lender, Madison,” Epstein said. “Judge Crane focused her inquiry on the fact that Madison has had to wait for a long time for payment and disregarded the fact that this was because of the city’s bad conduct. De Blasio was obstructionist for a very long time.
“Oddly enough, in December we had very favorable conversations with the city,” the Singer spokesperson added. “Perhaps now that the various agencies are outside de Blasio’s shadow and [out from under his] thumb, they will be allowed to do their jobs and apply rules fairly and logically. Allowing this building to be put back into productive use would be good for Madison and that would be just and fair.”
She said the 100,000-square-foot building was appraised by the city at around $126 million four or five years ago, but that de Blasio never made Singer a formal offer.
“We offered the city to come in with their appraisers,” she said. “We were begging, ‘Just give us a number.’ Crickets… nothing…zero. Never came back.”
Regarding Adams, she said, hopefully, “He’s made it very clear that one of his first lines of business is clean up the Department of Buildings: ‘We can’t be obstructionist.'”
In addition, in November, Epstein previously told The Village Sun, “This is the third time the building is in foreclosure. Lenders will only make two-year loans on vacant properties. Once the foreclosure is close to happening, the loan gets refinanced or, if need be, paid off by the partners.”
A two-decade-long saga
Embattled developer Singer bought the through-block property, located just east of Tompkins Square Park, at a city auction in 1998 for the bargain price of $3.15 million. Since then, in the face of staunch local political opposition, he has repeatedly been frustrated in his efforts to capitalize on the old school by turning it into a student dormitory of some sort.
Singer’s early plans called for demolishing the entire existing C.B.J. Snyder-designed 1905 structure and replacing it with a modern-style, high-rise tower. In 2006, the Bloomberg administration moved to landmark the vacant building right underneath him, at which Singer shockingly started hacking off its exterior ornamentation in a bid to preserve his development rights. At another point, apparently out of spite, he claimed the building would become a facility for battered women, substance abusers and juvenile offenders.
In more recent years, after having scrapped the tower plan, Singer has been trying to renovate the existing building, again as a dorm. But the city’s Department of Buildings has repeatedly rejected his business plans, charging they don’t pass muster. For example, in one of the latest schemes that fell through, The Cooper Union would only have been legally required to rent 10 beds a year, leaving it unclear who would be occupying all the other beds.
According to a Wall Street Journal article in 2018, Singer said he had invested more than $60 million into the property, including $35 million in interest and $5 million in legal fees. In a lawsuit filing in 2019, he said he had spent even more, $73 million, on the building.
De Blasio’s pledge
In 2017, when he was running for reelection, Mayor de Blasio said the city would try to reacquire the building.
It was Barbara Caporale who shouted out to the mayor at an East Village town hall meeting, “When are you going to get back the building!” prompting de Blasio to utter the pledge, which, as it turned out, would go unfulfilled.
One year later, after no progress had been made, this reporter asked de Blasio about the old school’s status. The mayor responded that Singer had been “exceedingly uncooperative.”
“We’ve tried to have a productive conversation about purchase,” de Blasio answered. “We’ve gotten nowhere so far. We’re not giving up. We’re working very closely with the councilmember, Carlina Rivera. I’m very frustrated with that owner.”
In November 2019, Singer filed a lawsuit charging de Blasio and the Department of Buildings with blocking his attempts to develop the property.
Rally for community center
Fast-forward to this past November, when opponents who for years have fought Singer’s ownership of and plans for the property gathered in front of the walled-off old school. They called on de Blasio to make good on his promise to reacquire the building. The rally’s date would have been the 74th birthday of Armando Perez, the late artistic director of CHARAS/El Bohio. A grassroots Puerto Rican-led organization, CHARAS had run the building as an arts and community center for nearly 20 years until Singer bought the place, evicting them in 2001.
At the November rally, Juan Rivero, the East Village and special projects director for Village Preservation, declared that City Hall should not have to pay anything to reacquire the building, given how bad a steward of it Singer has been.
“Its current owner has shown nothing but contempt for this landmark,” Rivero said. “He has tried to demolish and deface it. The city should simply take the building away from him. When he was running for election in 2017, [Mayor de Blasio] came to this neighborhood trolling for votes — but just empty, broken promises by the mayor. Let’s give the building back to the people of New York. Twenty years is too long.”
Chino Garcia, the executive director of CHARAS, said, “What happened to CHARAS should never happen again, especially to an institution that served the community for so many years. This was not just the destruction of a facility that served artists, community organizations and residents, but the total destruction of a community.”
Wild antics inside
Laura Sewell, executive director of the East Village Community Coalition, said youths have been getting inside the blighted structure and horsing around dangerously.
“Kids have repeatedly been seen climbing into the building,” she said. “They pose for selfies, stand on parapets and unstable window cornices. The city must take action before another tragedy occurs.”
The old P.S. 64 has been under a full vacate order — meaning no one is allowed inside — since 2019 after cracks were spotted on its facade on its 10th Street side.
For the birds
Pastor Will Kroeze of Trinity Lower East Side Lutheran Parish, from across the street, said CHARAS had provided a desperately needed meeting space for the church during a time of distress in the 1970s, helping the house of worship survive.
“Now all you hear are the flaps of pigeon wings and breaking glass,” he said of the old school, inside of which the birds now roost. “This place where so many people found a home is falling apart in front of our eyes and is a tragedy to behold.”
Coco Arregui performed “Chino and El Bohio (Chino and The Man),” a riff on Jose Feliciano’s “Chico and the Man” theme song of ’70s TV sitcom fame, at the Nov. 6 rally as emcee John Blasco held the microphone. (Video by The Village Sun)
Also speaking was Maraluna Rivas, an actress and teacher and daughter of the late Bimbo Rivas, who wrote the poem “Loisaida.” Bimbo coined the term, which is now an alternate street name for Avenue C. He attended the old P.S. 64 as a student. Part of the Nuyorican Poets movement, Bimbo was El Bohio’s theater director.
Former Councilmember Margarita Lopez, who worked with then-Mayor Bloomberg to get the old school landmarked, spoke passionately about the importance of arts in the community.
“There is no struggle without art,” she declared. “And this is going to be an art center again. And I am going to fight for it.”
Also speaking at the rally or issuing statements of support were Councilmember Carlina Rivera, Assemblymember Harvey Epstein, state Senator Brad Hoylman and District Leaders John Blasco and Aura Olavarria. (Blasco recently resigned his district leadership because he has moved to Brooklyn to live with his partner.)
Accident waiting to happen
Echoing E.V.C.C.’s Sewell, a next-door neighbor of old P.S. 64, Rachel Menaham, told The Village Sun that people have been getting inside the building and going wild, and also that the premises is not being maintained.
“The owner doesn’t shovel the snow. I have a scar on my leg, I slipped on the ice and snow,” Menahem said, pointing to a spot below her knee. “And the drugs that are happening here under the scaffold, we don’t feel safe. Drug addicts do meth, smoking it. All the problems are from the scaffold. Young boys climb up onto it and look into my apartment. Every day they’re breaking stuff in the classrooms. They’re making videos inside there on TikTok. They’re destroying things. I hear them cursing, saying horrible things. I’m afraid they might start a fire. This whole block is in danger. A woman in my building said she was walking by and a man was jerking off. The rats, they’re living in there. There are so many issues with this building, something’s going to happen.”
One obvious maintenance and safety issue is the sidewalk on the place’s Ninth Street side, which undulates like a rollercoaster.
As for security, the old P.S. 64 activists said Singer can’t post a guard inside the building due to the full vacate order.
In response, Epstein said, “We have cameras and our superintendent goes to the building at least twice per day. When people break in we call the police.”
The Singer flack said the reason there is no security guard is not because of the vacate order but because “it’s not mandated.”
As for the sidewalk, she said, “It will be replaced with the renovation of the building.”
Pitches Boys Club building alternative
However, Epstein said there is another building available that can be used as an East Village community center — the Boys Club at Avenue and 10th Street. Local hedge-funder Aaron Sosnick has denied he was the anonymous purchaser who bought the building for $32 million in 2019 to keep it out of developers’ hands. Sosnick has been a prominent backer of both the East Village Community Coalition and Village Preservation, which have been among the leading opponents fighting Singer’s plans for the old P.S. 64.
“If the 20 people [protesting], who are paid by Aaron Sosnick, want a community center, they would take the renovated Boys Club on Avenue A and 10th Street,” Epstein gibed. “If they want old P.S. 64, then they need a financially secure lease, so the building can get renovated with bank financing.”
After the rally a few months ago on Armando Perez’s birthday, Susan Howard, the leader of SOCCC64 (Save Our Community Center CHARAS 64), told The Village Sun that the main story was not de Blasio’s reneging on his pledge to get back the building. Rather, she said, it was Singer having to give up the property, or so she hopes.
“Singer’s in foreclosure,” she stressed. “He’s going to lose the building. This is the news.”
But Epstein said Singer still hopes to work something out with Madison.
“Schools are rightfully very intimidated to go anywhere near this,” she admitted of the local political opposition to Singer turning the old P.S. 64 into a dorm. “But no denying, there’s a huge need for student housing. The value of the building is there. We just need the political obstruction to subside.”