The fate of a vacant school building has residents up in arms against the property’s owner
By Adam Janos
The long battle between Gregg Singer of Singer Financial Corporation and residents of the East Village over the fate of the old P.S. 64 building went another round this week, with the East Village Community Coalition (EVCC) launching a petition to stop his conversion of the century-old schoolhouse into a 500-bed dorm. Singer has owned the property at 605 East 9th Street since outbidding competitors in a city auction in 1998, and this petition is just the latest salvo in the battle between Singer and members of the community.
Now, the latest heat surrounding the issue pulls Cooper Union into the fray. The university has already drawn unwanted media attention this week for a controversial decision to end their hallmark free tuition policy in the name of long-term economic viability. With their agreement to lease 196 beds in the proposed 500-bed dorm, Singer has staged a huge logistical victory. According to Department of Buildings’ (DOB) “Rule 51,” a developer must have a clear relationship established with university before it can put up a dorm, a technicality that has held Singer back in past development proposals with the space. Now that he has Cooper Union on board, Singer is that much closer to utilizing the space he’s watched sit vacant for the past twelve years.
Director of the EVCC Sara Romanoski says their petition, which flatly calls for a halt to the dorm development, is written for the Department of Buildings. However she notes that it’s also aimed at the school that’s signed on board to do business with Singer.
“We want Cooper Union to at least consult with the community,” said Romanoski. “This all happened behind closed doors around a building that has been in the press for a decade. It’s no secret that there’s controversy around this building, and this was done very quietly.”
The EVCC and opponents to Singer’s project claim that using the facility as a dormitory does not meet the spirit of “community facility use” that the deed for the property so requires.
“What decides whether it’s a community facility is the city,” said Claire McCarthy, spokesperson for Cooper Union. “And they’ve determined that a dorm is a community facility. It’s not our role.”
Part of the vitriol directed at Singer comes from his controversial decision to evict the CHARAS/El Bohio Community Center in 2001. Further plans to demolish P.S. 64 and build a 19-story dorm were defeated by Department of Buildings, and – thanks in large part to advocacy efforts by the EVCC – the building was landmarked in 2004. The current plan is a comparatively less ostentatious affair of simply converting the building and bringing it up to code. The building’s fate goes before the Landmarks Preservation Commission on May 7th.
According to a press release from Singer, beds in the new dorm will rent for $1550 per month. The dormitory will have “state of the art” security and technology, abundant high ceilings, a fitness center, a game room, music practice rooms, a TV media lounge, a health center, a café, and several outdoor patios.
“We have all these protester types, and they just want the sound bytes,” said Singer. “The deed says ‘community facility use’ and if you look at zoning, there’s a lot you can do with that, and one is a college student dormitory… the government I guess felt that a dormitory does benefit the community.”
Singer went on to criticize Council Member Rosie Mendez, who has been a vocal opponent of the dormitory plans. “She’s just holding me up. It’s like extortion.” Mendez did not respond to a request for comment.
“It’d be a transient population coming through for a semester, a year, three years, and then moving out,” responded Romanoski. “I don’t how we could not stand against something that we think is truly wrong for our neighborhood.”
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