The developer behind an embattled former schoolhouse in the East Village has sought to convert the five-story property into a college dormitory for nearly two decades, but claims the de Blasio administration is derailing his efforts, according to a new suit filed this week.
Developer Gregg Singer is in the midst of a years-long standoff with the city over plans for the former P.S. 64 building near Tompkins Square Park. He has long sought to transform the space into dorms, but the Department of Buildings (DOB) determined that the project would violate the city’s Dorm Rule, and served him with a stop work order in 2015, according to DOB records.
More recently, the agency hit the landmarked property with a full vacate order in March, which remains in place, after discovering cracks at the building, prompting elected officials to accuse Singer of allowing the building to deteriorate so that demolition may eventually become necessary. But Singer argues that his woes stem from the city’s desire to reclaim the building and “correct a supposedly historical mistake” when the Giuliani administration auctioned it off to him for $3.15 million in 1998, according to the Manhattan Supreme Court lawsuit.
“This course of conduct has also demonstrated the sheer naked futility in urging me to exhaust all administrative remedies when in fact I have done so repeatedly, only to have the rules of the game revised mid-game, the goal posted moved and the referee drawn and quartered,” Singer wrote in an September 9 affidavit.
On Thursday, a spokesperson for Singer charged that development hurdles have robbed the neighborhood of a project that would have brought units and life back to the block, instead it has been forced to sit idle for two decades.
“[The city’s] actions have prevented a great historic property from being renovated and being put back into productive use to create jobs and opportunities for real New Yorkers,” said Nicole Epstein, a spokesperson for Singer. “Mayor Bill should be ashamed of himself.”
Officials with the buildings department are quick to assert that it has never sought to personally plague Singer and is simply following the letter of the law.
“DOB maintains a robust standard of fairness and equity when reviewing any proposed project, including those from Mr. Singer,” said DOB spokesperson Andrew Rudansky. “We have never harassed this individual, nor done so at the direction of the Mayor.”
Before the building was sold to Singer, the P.S. 64 site housed the CHARAS/El Bohio Community Center. Since then, neighborhood residents and, as well as former and current elected officials, have relentlessly advocated for the site’s return to the community.
In October 2017, Mayor Bill De Blasio stoked hopes that the property could convert back into a community center when he announced, shortly before the mayoral election, that the city wanted to reacquire the building. The city took little action for several months and in August 2018, de Blasio told reporters that the city has “tried to have a productive conversation about purchase” but that he is “very frustrated with that owner” who he claimed was stonewalling the city.
Singer shot back, saying that he “was astonished at the brazenness of the mayor’s lie” and said he had heard no word from the mayor’s office since the 2017 announcement. Epstein says the city has yet to make Singer an offer for the building.
The new suit also alleges that the de Blasio administration’s “Orwellian tactics” are being influenced by a wealthy hedge-funder (and de Blasio donor) Aaron Sosnick, who lives in a penthouse next to the old schoolhouse.
“It would not be a stretch to suggest that this so-called ‘philanthropist’ is using his so-called ‘generosity’ and political influence to lower the cost of his attempted acquisition,” Singer alleges in his affidavit. “In this subterfuge, I believe the Mayor is his co-conspirator and lackey.”
September’s suit is far from the first that Singer has filed against the city; those include a January 2018 federal suit making similar charges against the city, the mayor, and Sosnick. That case is still pending. But the city is skeptical that Singer’s latest suit will prevail.
“None of Mr. Singer’s previous cases have been substantiated in court,” asserts Nicholas Paolucci, a law department spokesperson. “His state lawsuit lacked merit and was dismissed, and we’re moving to dismiss his federal case. We’re carefully reviewing this new complaint and will respond further in the litigation.”