Battling to Preserve LES Community Institution

| 17 Feb 2015 | 12:58

    Lower East Side residents appealing to new mayor to save building from developer's plans

    605 East 9th Street, the looming brick structure just off of Tompkins Square Park, has had many faces over the decades. For years, the building was the home of PS 64. And for two decades, from the 1970's-1990's, the building, led by community activist organization CHARAS, became the beloved Lower East Side Community Center "El Bohio" or "The Hut."

    After the tenants lost their lease in 1998, the building was sold to developer Gregg Singer for just $3.8 million, who had ambitions of knocking down the building and erecting a private high-rise dormitory for several educational institutions, including Cooper Union and Joffrey Ballet, to share. Residents were up in arms, and in 2006, they successfully got the building landmarked. Since then, the building has laid dormant, and the developer and residents have remained at a standstill: the DOB has not yet approved Singer's plans for a dormitory because of zoning and contractual issues. The neighborhood has been struggling to return the empty school building to the residents, many concluding that a student dormitory would not be beneficial for the community.

    "There's a whole range of potential community related uses like a community cultural center or anything that serves the need and purposes of the broader community," said Andrew Berman, Director of The Greenwich Village society for Historic Preservation. "This area continues to be a place of enormous cultural vitality with enormous active community groups. There's more than enough need out there to fill the space."

    Now residents are trying again with the new mayoral administration. Community Board 3 passed a resolution at their December meeting asking the new administration to return the former school building to the community, either back in the hands of CHARAS, or another not-for-profit organization. The spirit of CHARAS supposedly still exists.The organization still has an active Facebook page, and its founder, Chino Garcia, has spoken at multiple protests to bring the community center back, including a pop-up Community Arts Show dedicated to the PS 64 building held earlier this month. Fans of the community center have certainly re-invigorated efforts after the mayoral election. Attempts to get in touch with both Garcia and CHARAS were not successful.

    "We tried this and got nowhere under one administration for a long time. The time to have the highest office to look at this in the city the time is now," said Sara Romanoski, a representative from the East Village Community Coalition, one of the community groups that has worked tirelessly on the issue. "This is an important issue."

    The problem for the past two decades has been that Singer, despite his multiple attempts to get his dormitories developed, has not had any luck with the DOB because the building is deeded and zoned for community use. When Singer first bought the building in 1998, he attempted to work with El Bohio/CHARAS, and then the organization was evicted in 2001 just after 9/11. After Singer's first attempt to knock down the building and construct his high-rise dorm, he sued the city, said Romaoski. The case went all the way up to the higher state courts, who supported the city in disapproving the developer's plans, especially considering the low-level zoning in the East Village.

    And the only way to have the building be zoned for a dorm is if the lease is for 10 years or more. His new plan includes 500 dorms to be placed throughout the five-story building According to Romanoski, Singer would have to prove that dormitories would sign on to the idea for it to be legally given the "okay." The next step? DOB has to be convinced of Singer's plan and approve his application, something that hasn't happened since 2001.

    "The only thing that can happen is somehow the city finds a way to acquire the building back from the developer and he hasn't been amenable to it in the past," said Linda Jones, a representative from Community Board 3. "He has not done what he was required to do which is develop some kind of community space there. In all these years, he hasn't developed his dormitory, so the community is asking for the mayor to help with this."