Mendez fights on for return of former PS 64/CHARAS center to community use

Councilmember Rosie Mendez at a rally over the former community center

Council Member Rosie Mendez at a rally over the former community center (Photo by John Blasco)

By Maria Rocha-Buschel

Community residents joined City Councilmember Rosie Mendez at City Hall last Tuesday on Three Kings Day to deliver an online petition and over a thousand holiday cards to Mayor Bill de Blasio, asking him to help return the former PS 64 building for community use. The cards and petition were delivered along with gold-wrapped chocolate coins, frankincense and myrrh, in honor of the holiday.

Local politicians and community advocates have been fighting to get the former public school back from real estate developer Gregg Singer, who bought the building from the city for $3.15 million when then-mayor Rudolph Giuliani auctioned it off in 1998. Three years later in 2001, Singer evicted the building’s tenant, local community center CHARAS/El Bohio, which had been using the landmarked building since the 1970s. The building, located at 605 East 9th Street, has been vacant for the last 13 years.

CHARAS was founded in the 1960s by a group of Puerto Rican men (who used their initials to create the name for the organization) in response to the crisis in the Lower East Side at the time, where an increasing number of residential buildings were in tax foreclosure and residents were fleeing the neighborhood.

Local advocates have had marginal success in fighting Singer’s plans, including saving the building from demolition in 2008, as the Post recently noted. A Post story at the time said Singer had been trying to argue that the building shouldn’t have been considered a landmark, primarily because he had stripped the facade of most of its architectural details, but a Manhattan Supreme Court justice ruled against him, upholding the building’s landmark status and thwarting his plan to build a 19-story dorm.

Singer has yet to give up on his plans for a dorm, however, going so far as to sign leases with both the Joffrey Ballet Center Concert Group Program (CGP) and Cooper Union in early 2013. Singer has steadily continued the work for the dormitory but the plan was put on hold again last September when the Department of Buildings issued a Stop Work Order to halt construction.

About a year after Singer entered the agreements with Cooper Union and CGP, in July 2014, the DOB had approved his application to have the housing for the ballet school considered a “not-for-profit with housing accommodations” rather than a dorm. The department issued a partial work permit to convert the ground and first floor into dormitory rooms but later reviewed objections that Mendez raised about the plan.

The DOB determined at the end of last September that the lease agreements didn’t meet the agency’s criteria for a lease with an educational institution. The department also noted that the CGP couldn’t be considered a not-for-profit because the application contained misinformation, which disqualified the program for that status.

Mendez noted at the event last Tuesday that she doesn’t plan on giving up on the building because of its importance to the community.

“The former PS 64 CHARAS/El Bohio was a school building and a cultural community center that cultivated the hopes and dreams of so many people in our community,” Mendez said. “Community activists laid the seeds and the foundation that created our community gardens and our urban homesteading buildings while sitting in a room at CHARAS. This holiday season, my community and I want nothing more than to get our building back.”

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