Kings and politicians ask mayor for greatest gift of all: the old P.S. 64 back | East Villager & Lower East Sider

Kings and politicians ask mayor for greatest gift of all: the old P.S. 64 back

At the rally for the old P.S. 64, from left, Councilmember Rosie Mendez; Borough President Gale Brewer; District Leader Anthony Feliciano; State Committeeman Michael Farrin; Val Orselli of Cooper Square M.H.A.; and Chino Garcia, executive director of CHARAS.  Photos by Roberto J. Mercado

At the rally for the old P.S. 64, from left, Councilmember Rosie Mendez; Borough President Gale Brewer; District Leader Anthony Feliciano; State Committeeman Michael Farrin; Val Orselli of Cooper Square M.H.A.; and Chino Garcia, executive director of CHARAS. Photos by Roberto J. Mercado

BY LINCOLN ANDERSON   |  Hoping that this will finally be the year that the old P.S. 64 is restored as a community center, East Village activists trekked down to City Hall in the frigid weather Tuesday afternoon to ask Mayor de Blasio to fulfill their holiday wish.

But, in fact, it’s been a wish ever since the building was sold to a developer 16 years ago. For most of the time since then, it’s sat vacant, even as the neighborhood around it has rapidly gentrified.

They were led by City Councilmember Rosie Mendez, who, after the rally, delivered scores of special holiday cards to de Blasio signed by the effort’s supporters. The cards pleaded for the mayor to intervene and help the community get the building back.

Also joining Mendez, and dressed up as the three kings for the holiday of Epiphany (Three Kings Day) were District Leader Anthony Feliciano, State Committeeman Michael Farrin and Valerio Orselli, executive director of the Cooper Square Mutual Housing Association.

The real king, Mayor de Blasio walked by during the press conference and waved and smiled at the crowd of East Village activists.

The real king, Mayor de Blasio walked by during the press conference and waved and smiled at the crowd of East Village activists.

The former school building, at 605 E. Ninth St. near Avenue B, was bought at city auction by Gregg Singer in 1998 for $3.2 million. A few years later, Singer evicted CHARAS / El Bohio, the Puerto Rican-led cultural and community center that had occupied the place for nearly 20 years.

Yet, during all the years Singer has owned 605 E. Ninth St., his various ongoing attempts to develop the site have all repeatedly failed in the face of unyielding opposition by community activists and local politicians.

In 2006, drastically restricting what Singer could do with the property, the city’s Landmarks Preservation Commission designed the turn-of-the-century “H”-style school building as an individual landmark.

Back then, in a failed bid to stave off the landmarking, Singer “scalped” the building — in the blunt words of one of his own lawyers — by lopping off exterior terracotta ornaments around the windows.

Recently, though, Singer had finally seemed poised to move ahead with a new plan to convert the existing building into a dormitory for The Cooper Union and the Joffrey Ballet School, among others. However, in response to Mendez’s persistent complaints, D.O.B. in September determined Singer’s lease arrangement with the two schools was not up to snuff, and issued a full stop-work order on the building. The ruling gave new hope that the building could be restored as a community center. A partial stop-work order at the site remains in effect.

“Gregg Singer has done nothing but lop off exterior details in 2006,” Mendez said at the press conference. It’s time that the vacant building finally be put back to good use, she declared.

The decommissioned school was sold during former Mayor Giuliani’s administration, which was unfriendly to CHARAS / El Bohio. The center’s cultural director was the late Armando Perez, who was also a Democratic district leader.

Perez and his co-district leader, Margarita Lopez, were members of the Coalition for a District Alternative (CoDA) political organization, and thus staunch foes of Giuliani ally Antonio Pagan, who belonged to a rival Democratic political club. After Pagan left the City Council to run for borough president, Lopez would go on to win his seat.

“What we want today is restitution from the city, which took that building away unjustly,” Farrin said.

Added Orselli, “The decision to sell the building was a political decision.”

Chino Garcia, CHARAS’s executive director, said that while Giuliani O.K.’d the deal under which squatters in 11 East Village tenements were allowed to buy their buildings for $1 apiece, CHARAS was never offered the same chance.

Nevertheless, CHARAS was also willing to pay a lot more than $1 to buy the old P.S. 64, he added.

“We offered $1.5 million — and had a pledge for $3 million — in writing,” Garcia said. “Other people got buildings for $1. He was a hypocrite,” he said of Giuliani.

Admittedly, CHARAS, which extends through the block to E. 10th St., at 150,000 square feet, is bigger than a tenement.

Ayo Harrington, a member of Community Board 3 and a gardens activist, recalled how when she was new to the neighborhood, it was at CHARAS that she learned about homesteading — a city program under which people could fix up abandoned buildings and then live in them.

“It was needed,” she said of CHARAS. “All neighborhoods need a building like this. But we don’t have it, all because some guy is acting like a juvenile and saying, ‘If I can’t do what I want with it, you can’t either.’

“Although it’s cold today, we have warm hopes that this mayor, this administration is going to do the right thing and give CHARAS back to the people,” Harrington said.

Chants of “Give it back! Give it back!” broke out in the crowd of about 75.

Susan Howard of Save CHARAS said it’s not over until it’s over.

“I have stood on picket lines with some of you for 15 years, 20 years,” she said. “We’re not going to stop until this building is brought back home.”

Borough President Gale Brewer joined the rally and gave remarks.

“We just don’t have enough cultural and community centers,” she stressed, adding that these sorely needed facilities play a key role in helping neighborhoods’ “mental health.”

“There’s not enough money for mental health services,” she said. “One of the ways to do it is to put money into the arts and buildings like this.”

Suddenly, the man who could answer the crowd’s holiday wishes came walking by on his way into City Hall.

“There he is!” someone shouted as Mayor de Blasio was passing by, waving and flashing a smile.

“Give it back! Give it back!” the East Villagers shouted, as the three kings made their way over toward the mayor to give him their boxes of “gold, frankincense and myrrh.” But with his long strides, de Blasio was up the stairs before they could reach him.

Sara Romanoski, executive director of the East Village Community Coalition, added that the old P.S. 64, historically, when it was a school, was always a building that was “open to the community. It was progressive,” she said.

At the press conference’s conclusion, grabbing the box of holiday cards to deliver to the mayor, Mendez said, “This building is owned by someone who has held onto it out of spite. We hope, with this community and this mayor, we can get it back. It won’t be easy. It’s been more than 15 years.”

She also delivered to the mayor a letter asking to meet with him about the issue, signed by her and other elected officials, including Congressmembers Nydia Velazquez and Carolyn Maloney, state Senators Brad Hoylman and Daniel Squadron, Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and Assemblymember Brian Kavanagh, Councilmember Margaret Chin, Brewer and Comptroller Scott Stringer.

When she came back out of City Hall, Mendez described to The Villager the two scenarios under which the community could get the building back. Under the first, the community would negotiate directly with Singer to sell them the building. Under the second option, the de Blasio administration would take the building back through eminent domain. For that to happen, though, a judge would first have to show an “important government interest” for doing so.

“It will be up to a judge to determine,” she said.

Either way, the building’s fair-market value that would have to be paid could be as much as $30 million to $40 million, she said.

Afterward, asked by The Villager if the mayor would, like Santa, grant the community activists their wish, the Mayor’s Press Office issued a brief statement:

“We’re committed to working with community groups and our elected officials to address New Yorkers’ concerns surrounding land use decisions, and we will review the requests we received today.”

Singer could not be reached for comment by press time.