The city must take swift steps to reclaim the former P.S. 64 building after cracks in the landmark forced dozens of residents to evacuate from nearby structures this week, say elected officials and East Village neighbors.
Local leaders charged the building’s owner, Gregg Singer, with allowing the schoolhouse to fall into disrepair over the 20 years he has possessed the building. Advocates have cited rodent infestations, grime, graffiti, crumbling masonry, and more as examples of the property’s demolition by neglect, and demanded the de Blasio administration fulfill a promise it made in 2017 to reacquire the historic building that the Rudolph Giuliani administration auctioned off in 1998.
“It’s going to take another mayor to change this and do the right thing,” City Comptroller Scott Stringer said at a Thursday news conference outside of the long-vacant building. “We need Mayor de Blasio to keep his word.”
The building has 31 open violations from the city’s Department of Buildings (DOB) including an environmental control board violation for failing to keep sidewalk scaffolding up to code with a whopping $10,000 fine. Boarded-up broken windows and shredded tarps meant to cover sections of the exterior are visible from the street, and the perimeter is littered with posters, dirt, and moss.
“This is a blight on the East Village and the Lower East Side and we desperately need to take action as a city to right the wrong that is this building behind me,” City Council member Carlina Rivera said Thursday. “It’s not just an eyesore, it has been neglected and it has the potential to be something so much greater and better for this community.”
The building once held a community resource known as the CHARAS/El Bohio Community Center, and some residents want to see it returned to that use. Olympia Kazi, an architecture critic and member of Community Board 3’s land use and arts committees who lives across from the building, says it’s “very sad to see what could be a great asset to the community fall into disrepair.”
On Wednesday morning, DOB inspectors rushed to the building after a 311 caller noticed cracks on the building facade. Four buildings—346, 348, 362, and 364 East 10th Street—were temporarily evacuated as engineers evaluated the property’s structural integrity. Ultimately, they ruled that the building is not an imminent safety hazard but did issue a violation to Singer for failing to maintain the exterior facade.
Inspectors with the Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC) visited the property several times in 2017 and ’18 to work with Singer on repairs to the roof and windows to prevent water damage. On LPC’s last visit in June 2018, the roof had been repaired and the windows were sealed. Inspectors are in conversation with DOB engineers and conducted another visit Thursday.
“We will determine our next steps once a thorough assessment of the building is made,” said LPC spokesperson Zodet Negron.
Singer told Curbed Wednesday that “it’s all political” and dismissed concerns that the building posed a threat to its neighbors, arguing that opponents to his plans to build dorms at the building are fanning the flames of controversy. A representative for Singer reiterated that sentiment on Thursday.
“It is fundamentally wrong for the government to sell property at public auction and then demand it back, just so it can hand it to another private owner as a political favor,” charged Nicole Epstein, a spokesperson for Singer, in a statement to Curbed. “It is much easier for NYC to say they must use eminent domain to protect the safety of the people and create this spectacle meanwhile the DOB said themselves that the building is safe.”
De Blasio pledged at an October 2017 town hall to work to reacquire the building but has taken few steps to do so, and only recently reached out to discuss a possible buy-back, according to Singer. Local leaders would like to see the city pick up the pace now that the property is impacting the lives of neighbors.
“Singer has not acted in good faith … we have rodent problems, we have ice on the sidewalk problems, we’ve had homeless encampments, the scaffolding is generally out of code, and we’ve had masonry falling off the building,” said Jason Goodrow, who was evacuated from 362 East 10th Street, where he’s lived for 27 years, for some four hours Wednesday. “As I have two little kids it is a continuing disturbing situation.”
Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer says the building is “perfect for eminent domain” while Rivera says the city should “by any means necessary” bring the building “back to community use.” The city has not offered elected leaders updates on its conversations with Singer and has not given an estimated timeline for when it hopes to acquire the land by, elected officials said Thursday.
“We’re in contact with representatives for the owner and we are exploring options with them,” Jaclyn Rothenberg, a spokesperson with the Mayor’s office told Curbed.
Singer is unable to move forward with his plans to turn the building into dorms after the city concluded that the scheme violates what is referred to as the city’s Dorm Rule, and served him with a stop work order that remains in place, according to the DOB. Singer is currently locked in a lawsuit with the city, but residents say there is no reason he can’t maintain the building in the meantime.
“The conditions of this building is a message from the owner to the community. You don’t need a permit to shovel ice and snow, you don’t need a permit to keep the sidewalk sheds maintained, to scrape old posters off, to keep the lights on, you do not need a permit to be a good neighbor,” said Laura Sewell, the executive director of the East Village Community Coalition “What’s the city’s message to this community? We’re waiting.”