Scaled-down dorm pitched for embattled CHARAS site
BY SARAH FERGUSON | Ten years ago, developer Gregg Singer stirred up a fury of opposition when he proposed razing the old P.S. 64 school building on E. Ninth St. to put up a 19-story dormitory tower.
Now Singer is pitching a downscaled dorm plan to house up to 529 students in the existing turn-of-the century school building, which was landmarked in 2006, after community members mobilized to block him from tearing it down.
Last time, the city refused to approve Singer’s dormitory tower because he did not have any actual leases with schools or universities to show proof of an “institutional nexus” for the property, which is zoned for community facility use.
The courts upheld the city’s decision, saying Singer could not build an “on-spec” dorm without any schools on board.
This time, however, Singer says he’s confident his project “is going forward”— in large part because The Cooper Union has signed a 15-year lease to house up to 196 of its students on two of the building’s five floors.
“Cooper Union is our anchor tenant,” Singer said proudly of his revamped “state-of-the-art” dorm, dubbed “University House,” which he’s aiming to open in fall 2014.
In an hour-long interview on Tuesday at the offices of The Villager, Singer presented digital images of the new dorm scheme, showing students lounging in tree-shaded courtyards on the Ninth and 10th St. sides of the H-shaped school building, which for two decades housed the CHARAS/El Bohio community center.
“Once completed, the dormitory will feature amenities unavailable in modern apartment buildings,” a press release boasts. The new plans call for 95 suites housing four to seven students, at a cost of $1,550 per bed. Each suite would have its own kitchen, bathroom and dining room area with “large” flat-screen TV, and bedrooms furnished with bunk beds, desks and personal safes for the students to store their valuables. Some of the units show spiral staircases leading up to loft spaces, taking advantage of the 14-foot ceiling height on all floors.
Many of the upper floor suites have views of the Empire State Building.
The basement — formerly home to a 400-seat auditorium where F.D.R. once riled the masses, and where the Fringe Festival was staged — would now house a bike room, fitness center, TV lounge and game rooms outfitted with pool, ping-pong and foosball tables, along with Xbox and PlayStation consoles.
“This is the most advanced dorm in Manhattan as far as technology goes,” Singer claimed. In addition to wireless service throughout the dorm, each student would have their own Cat 6 cable to connect them to their school’s computer system, Singer said.
Singer said the pricing was comparable to what New York University and the New School charge for dorm space. An in-house health center run by Beth Israel and staffed by a full-time physician’s assistant would offer free healthcare to residents. There would also be a cafe, study rooms and soundproof music rooms on four of the five floors — so students can jam on site.
“We think we will have some music schools leasing from us,” Singer predicted.
While the building would continue to be owned by Singer and his partners in 9th and 10th Street LLC, the dorm would be run by a management company that specializes in student properties across the country. There would also be 24-hour security and “lots of cameras throughout the building, so parents know it’s safe,” Singer assured.
A brochure for University Houses notes the building’s “exceptional location next to the wireless Tompkins Square Park, farmers market, music and art festivals, summer film nights, basketball and handball courts, and open grass areas for lounging.” Students, it notes, will be able to take advantage of the M8 bus that stops on 10th St., along with Alphabet City’s “many affordable restaurants, cafes and nightlife venues.”
All of which is sure to elicit outrage from area residents who have long feared a dorm would overwhelm the character of the neighborhood.
On Tuesday, the East Village Community Coalition, which was founded to stop Singer’s previous dormitory tower, began circulating an online petition demanding that Cooper Union not house its students there.
“Respect our community. Respect this community treasure,” the petition says of the old P.S. 64. “Dormitory use does not serve our community.”
E.V.C.C. Director Sara Romanowski said that while the new University House plan is smaller than Singer’s previous tower scheme, “It’s still 500 students. It’s a large concentration, and not under the supervision of any one institution, which is even more nerve-wracking.”
Singer shrugs off such complaints.
“Manhattan has almost 2 million people. These kids are already coming to the East Village,” he said.
“They are putting three to four students in studios around here,” he noted. “This is a safe and managed environment. Isn’t that better than cramming them in all these brownstones?”
He points to a study he commissioned by Greenwich Realty Advisors that determined that Manhattan faces a shortfall of 57,000 dormitory beds.
While N.Y.U. and the New School have already said they aren’t interested, Singer predicts he will have plenty of interest from small and midsize schools that can’t afford to build their own dorms.
That’s certainly the case of the beleaguered Cooper Union, which this week announced it would be forced to charge undergraduate tuition starting in fall 2014 in order to sustain itself.
Currently, Cooper has just one dorm on Third Ave., housing 178 of its freshmen, out of a total student body of roughly 1,000.
“Some of our students have had to move further and further away to find housing,” said Claire McCarthy, the school’s director of public relations. “Our students tend to work late into the night in their studios, so we were looking to find housing for them closer to our campus,” which is located at Astor Place and Cooper Square.
McCarthy seemed unaware of the animosity that Singer has engendered since he bought the building out from under the old CHARAS community center at auction for a scant $3.15 million. Nor apparently did she or other Cooper officials fully realize the role they might now play in legitimizing Singer’s latest dorm scheme.
“It’s not something that really was on our radar,” McCarthy said of the 16-year controversy over this property. “We’ve been focused in the last 10 years on getting our new buildings built, and now dealing with our financial challenges. We only recently looked at this opportunity.”
On April 1, the Department of Buildings rejected Singer’s plans for the dorm conversion. But Singer said that was because the plans had yet to receive approval from the Landmarks Preservation Commission, which is required because the building is landmarked.
Singer has already met with L.P.C. staff to go over proposed exterior alterations, such as adding bulkheads to the rooftop, reducing the 10th St. raised plaza area to create an airy ground-floor courtyard, and replacing the big wheelchair ramp on the Ninth St. side with two smaller ramps that go directly into the basement.
On May 7, Landmarks is holding a public hearing, where people can testify for or against the project. L.P.C. must indeed issue a permit for the exterior alterations before any work can commence. However, L.P.C. spokesperson Elisabeth DeBourbon explained, “We have no jurisdiction over how the building is used, or over any interior alterations that don’t affect the exterior.”
But the big question remains, is the lease that Cooper signed enough of a commitment to meet the standard for a legal dorm?
In 2008, to stop developers from taking advantage of the so-called “community facility use bonus” to bulk up residential projects, the Buildings Department passed Rule 51-01, which requires developers to show proof of an “institutional nexus” in order to build a dorm.
To meet the criteria, a developer must either show a long-term lease (minimum 10 years) with an accredited school for all or “part” of the building, or the establishment of a nonprofit entity to run the dorm, whose board members are all representatives of participating schools. In addition, there must be a “restrictive declaration” ensuring all of the property is used as a dorm.
In this case, it’s unclear whether the “first priority lease” that Cooper signed meets that standard.
According to Singer, Cooper agreed to lease two floors for 15 years.
“Cooper is paying the lease, and the students pay the school,” he explained. “If their students don’t want to take the beds, then [Cooper] has the option to sublease those spaces to another school. It’s no different from the kind of leases used by most big institutions,” Singer added.
But Cooper plays it differently.
“We have reserved the right for students to have an option to rent there,” explained McCarthy. “We have a lease to reserve approximately 196 beds and have first rights for our students. It’s up to the students to decide if they want to rent there or elsewhere.”
McCarthy said she believed Cooper students would pay rent directly to Singer or his management firm.
“We have nothing to do with running the building or the rates charged, which would be determined by the owner,” McCarthy explained.
Both Cooper Union and Singer declined to provide The Villager with a copy of the lease, citing a confidentiality clause that Singer inserted.
At press time, the Buildings Department did not respond to repeated queries as to whether the leasing agreement with Cooper Union would qualify this project as a legal dorm.
“We’re still looking into it,” said D.O.B. spokesperson Gloria Chin.
But Councilmember Rosie Mendez says she’s not buying it.
“I’ve already placed a call to the Buildings Department, because it seems to me they don’t have a viable lease under the rules dictated by D.O.B.,” Mendez said.
“I will be filing a complaint based on what I’ve been told,” Mendez added. “Either someone here is not telling the truth, or these two parties have very different ideas of what they have contracted — all of which is problematic to me.”
Beyond that, Mendez said, “having a lease for 200 out of 500 beds is not a majority share, so I don’t know how you can be the anchor tenant with less than 50 percent of the property.
“Show us the lease, let’s see what Cooper actually signed on for,” Mendez challenged, adding, “I truly believe that [Cooper Union] President Jamshed Bharucha was not given a complete history of the building when he signed on to this. Cooper is now in an untenable situation with the community, because they were not given all the facts.”
So far, L.P.C. has issued permits to replace the broken and cracked wooden windows with aluminum-frame windows, and is in the process of issuing a permit for Singer to perform necessary repointing and patching work. Singer said he also plans to replace terracotta facade work that he previously hacked off the building with new fiberglass versions.
For his part, Singer insists the new dorm scheme will ultimately be welcomed by the community.
“What I am giving them is a renovated building that adds vitality and life to the community,” he noted of the dorm plan, which is projected to cost $40 million.
He pointed to his own petition, circulated in 2008, showing support for a “student dormitory” from some 700 local business “owners,” including longtime East Village institutions like Guerra Paint & Pigment on E. 13th St. and Bella Tile.
“Unused as an elementary school since 1977, the century-old structure sat empty for the past 11 years,” reads an April 18 press release on the University House dorm. “The building occupies much of the city block, where its vacancy has inhibited local development and the growth of small businesses in the neighborhood.”
Conspicuously left out is any mention of CHARAS and the lingering resentment over the community space that was lost.
Asked whether he could provide any space in the building for a community center, Singer said he has to be realistic and that he won’t get any loans approved unless it’s a financially viable project.
Neighborhood agitator John Penley said both Singer and Cooper Union should brace for more protest. While he firmly disassociates himself from whoever torched three cars outside the school on Sat., April 6, following an aborted sidewalk campout to protest the new dorm plan, Penley said Cooper should consider that a warning.
“It’s just a magnet for trouble,” he said.
Mendez said she met with Cooper President Bharucha to voice her displeasure.
“I told him I’m not happy with this dorm plan, the community is not happy,” she said. “There will be protests, and I will be joining in when that happens.”