The former P.S. 64 building has been an architectural and cultural fixture within the East Village for more than a century. Built in 1906 near Tompkins Square Park with frontage on both East 9th and East 10th Streets, the building introduced a number of innovations to 20th-century public school design.
Architect C.B.J. Snyder conceived a grand red brick and terra cotta structure in the French Renaissance Revival style, with detailed facades and open courtyards facing both streets. The groundbreaking “H-plan” layout maximized natural light and clean air in the classrooms, while the first-floor auditorium increased access to the general public. For decades the school served the largely immigrant communities of the East Village.
The school board closed P.S. 64 in 1977 due to budgetary constraints and low enrollment, but by 1979 members of the Puerto Rican community group Charas secured a lease from the City. Renamed the Charas/El Bohio Community Center, the building began a second life as a multi-use center providing workspace for community groups and performance artists. During this period, the nominal rent Charas paid to the City could not cover maintenance costs for the entire structure. Charas was not able to independently maintain the vast structure, and it gradually fell into disrepair.
In 1996 the administration of then-Mayor Rudy Giuliani (R) decided to sell the building at auction. Charas members opposed the sale and proposed to purchase and renovate the building, but City officials deemed that the proposal was not viable. Members also argued that rising rents throughout the East Village left El Bohio as one of the few remaining affordable spaces for artists and community groups. The mounting dispute over the former P.S. 64 building became a symbol for local residents of the gentrification and cultural displacement rapidly transforming the East Village.
An initial auction in 1997 did not attract any bidders. At the second auction in 1998, developer Gregg Singer of the Singer Financial Corporation purchased the building for $3.15 million. Because it was once a public school, the deed came with a crucial – but ambiguous – restriction that the building may only be used by a group that benefits the community. At the time Singer assured the City and local residents that he intended to comply, but many local residents worried that the City would not be able to enforce the restriction once Singer took possession of the building.
The U.S. Housing and Urban Development Department (HUD) joined the battle to halt the sale, arguing that since the City had previously accepted Federal grant money to renovate the building, the building could not be sold without HUD approval. On July 21, 1999, a panel of the Federal District Court in Manhattan allowed the sale to proceed.
After taking the title in July of 1999, Singer terminated Charas’ month-to-month lease and filed an eviction notice that fall. In 2001 a jury in Manhattan Civil Court unanimously agreed with Charas’ arguments that Singer did not intend to comply with the deed’s community-benefit restriction, intending instead to convert the building to market-rate apartments. Singer reiterated that he would comply with the restriction.
A mid-level appeals court overturned the Civil Court’s decision later that year and sided with Singer, ruling that he was not required to provide proof that he would comply with the deed restriction. In late September, a higher court refused to hear Charas’ appeal of this decision and denied a stay of the eviction order. Police carried out the eviction order at the end of December, wearing riot gear and using a battering ram to gain access, and arresting people who had chained themselves inside.
The forceful eviction of Charas hardened local opinion against Singer’s redevelopment plans for the building. After Singer announced plans in 2003 to build a 27-story dormitory on the site, and a group named the East Village Community Coalition (EVCC) formed to preserve the building by having it designated as a city landmark. Landmark status would prevent significant redevelopment of the site and constrict Singer’s use of the estimated $36 million worth of air rights above the building.
The same year Singer received approval from the Department of Buildings (DOB) to begin restoration work on the building. The singer admitted in media interviews that he planned to strip facades and architectural features in order to diminish the building’s chances of qualifying for landmark status.
In 2004, Singer presented a plan to scale back the dormitory to 19 stories while preserving the more architecturally significant 9th Street side of the building. The New York City Department of Buildings (DOB) rejected this proposal and refused to grant a demolition permit since Singer had not identified any academic institutions willing to partner in the venture. The DOB also noted that the interior plans appeared to be residential and not that of a dormitory.
Successive permit applications by Singer and an appeal to the Board of Standards and Appeals (BSA) were rejected on similar grounds. Singer initiated three lawsuits related to the DOB ruling. In one suit Singer charged that the City and the DOB did not have legal grounds for denying his permit. In May of 2006, Singer filed an additional $100 million lawsuit against Mayor Bloomberg, the DOB, the BSA, and the Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC).
The suit sought damages for unlawfully blocking Singer’s redevelopment plans. The suit also accused Bloomberg of cutting a deal with then-City Councilmember Margarita Lopez (D-East Village) that would ensure Lopez’s support for the Mayor in exchange for blocking the redevelopment. A third suit attempted to reverse the LPC’s steps to landmark the building.
On June 20, 2006, the LPC approved landmark designation for the site. The conferring of landmark designation does not override pre-existing construction permits, and Singer continued to remove architectural features from the building in accordance with his 2003 DOB approval.
After a number of appeals, Singer ultimately lost all three lawsuits in 2008. In June of 2008 Singer transferred control of the property to Hoffman Management and declared that although he was still an investor in the project, he had no direct involvement in the building’s ongoing management.
By February of 2009, Singer sought alternative options to rent out the building. Singer sent a proposal to the Art Institute of New York (AINY) offering a lease. AINY officials declined the offer. In March a community protest demanded the levying of fines against Singer for allowing the continued deterioration of the building. Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer (D) and others called on the City to intervene through eminent domain or a buyout – though no action has been taken.
The same month Singer commented that negotiations with several institutions were in the works and that he expected the building to be occupied within 12 months. In August of 2009, the brokerage firm HelmsleySpear began distributing advertising materials for the site – rebranded as “The University House at Tompkins Square Park” – seeking tenants or a buyer from within the non-profit sector.