Full Frontal: Will P.S. 64 Lose Its Face?

Categories: Citystate

Making his case before the city's Landmarks Preservation Commission last week, developer Gregg Singer presented these before and after shots of what the old P.S. 64 school on East 9th Street in Manhattan might look like if he strips the facade.

The commission could vote as early as June 20 on whether to landmark the century-old former elementary school, which was designed by noted architect C.B.J. Snyder.

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But if P.S. 64 gets preserved, Singer says he'll shear off all the building's white limestone veneer and ornate pediments--work that legally he can do because of an already approved alteration permit.

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That would leave just a plain red brick building, shown above. (For full coverage of Singer's threat and his lawsuit against the city, read here.)

At the June 6 hearing, an architectural historian hired by Singer challenged the commissioners to landmark a building that might wind up looking not very historic at all.

"A designation here could not withstand scrutiny when made with the knowledge that the owner has the right to complete the work on that approved set of drawings--work that would leave the building in scalped and denuded state," charged the architect, Andrew Alpern.

Scalped? Ouch!

Alpern also called P.S. 64's decorative elements "positively pathetic" and said the building was like "a poor relative on the other side of the tracks," when compared to the 13 other Snyder schools already landmarked across the city.

His colorful phrasing did not sit well with the fans of old P.S. 64 who packed the hearing room. "Vandal!" someone blurted out.

But Alpern's testimony deserves its own context. Back in 1984 he co-authored, with NYC real estate patriarch Seymour Durst, a book called New York's Architectural Holdouts, which rather unsympathetically details the sagas of property owners who refused to make way for big development projects.

Now Alpern is weighing in on the side of Singer--who wants to raze the back half of P.S. 64 to put up a 19-story student dorm--and against those fighting to hold on to the old school building, which has been rotting empty ever since Singer bought it from the city in 1998.

Also testifying on Singer's behalf was a representative of the Real Estate Board of New York, who accused P.S. 64's advocates of politicizing the landmarks process to thwart development, and M.I.T. professor Robert M. Fogelson, who did his best to deflate the school's legacy as a beacon for immigrant children on the Lower East Side.

"P.S. 64 was not meant to perpetuate the culture of the immigrants," Fogelson charged. "It was meant to obliterate it." So what if FDR campaigned in the school's auditorium and the guy who wrote the Wizard of Oz lyrics learned his ABCs there. Plenty of old buildings, he argued, have history.

For its part, the Landmarks commission has issued its own rather laudatory statement on P.S. 64's "significance."

"P.S. 64 was designed while Snyder was at his creative and inventive peak," the LPC reports. "Its keyed surrounds, slate-covered mansard roof, terra-cotta moldings, and keystones, and pediments filled with fruit and foliage helped to create a strong statement of the importance of education and of the building itself in the crowded immigrant neighborhood."

So will the LPC take a stand, in spite of Singer's threat to cut off P.S. 64's face?

The commission has its own history of backing down when an owner has a permit in hand that might destroy the very qualities that make a building worth preserving. Witness the so-called Paterson Silks building on the corner of 14th Street and University. In March 2005, the LPC voted to consider saving it, then dropped the matter after a developer demolished its distinctive glass tower entranceway.

But that was a box-like retail store built in 1949--a far less storied property than P.S. 64, which for 20 years served as the Latino community center CHARAS/El Bohio, after the city abandoned the school in the late 1970s.

In its statement, the LPC gave credence to CHARAS' history as "the symbolic center of the urban homesteading and urban ecology movement" on the Lower East Side.

"It's now down to a game of bluff," concedes Roger Lang of the Landmarks Conservancy, a private non-profit group that lobbies for saving historic buildings.

Singer can't do anything to P.S. 64 before the June 20 hearing, according to yet another "standstill agreement" he signed with the LPC. But after that, he's free to act on that permit. (He has already lined up the necessary scaffolding.)

One thing that might give the commissioners pause is the $100 million lawsuit that Singer filed against the city, which specifically accuses the Landmarks commission of colluding with the Mayor's office and former Councilmember Margarita Lopez to block his dorm project. City attorneys say the lawsuit has no merit. But it has certainly upped the ante. (The suit was filed by Rudy Giuliani's former chief of staff Randy Mastro, who has made suing the city a cottage industry of late.)

Yet by pushing the envelope, Singer has also helped propel a larger preservation movement in the East Village. Over the last two years, the East Village Community Coalition, which formed to block Singer's dorm, has broadened to take on other neighborhood battles, such as the fight to save the 158-year-old St. Brigid's Church off Tompkins Square, which is slated to be torn down for redevelopment. There's also a movement afoot to downzone the East Village—which could stymie Singer's high-rise dorm plan, regardless.

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