Court Backs East Village 'Dorm for Hire'

Categories: Follow-Up

So far Singer has stripped off all the dormer windows on the 10th Street side of P.S. 64. He hopes to demolish a lot more.

It looks as if developer Gregg Singer’s proposed 19-story megadorm off Tompkins Square does have a leg to stand on after all.

A Manhattan appeals court ruled 3-2 last week that the city had wrongly denied Singer a permit to raze all but the front façade of the now landmarked P.S. 64 school building on East Ninth Street so he can put up a dormitory tower for 800-plus students. (Read the decision here.)

The Appellate Division reversed rulings by the State Supreme Court and the city’s Board of Standards and Appeals, both of which found that the Department of Buildings was right to reject Singer’s dorm scheme because he has not lined up any schools or universities to lease the space.

The split decision also flies in the face of last year’s vote to landmark the century-old Beaux Arts school—formerly home to the Latino-run community center Charas/El Bohio—after clamorous protests against Singer's so-called “dorm for hire.”

Gabriel Taussig, an attorney for the city, promised a swift appeal, saying, “We believe, in light of the lower court as well as the two dissenting appellate justices supporting us, that we stand a strong likelihood of prevailing.”

Opponents of Singer’s plan fear that if the Court of Appeals upholds the Appellate Division's decision, it could open the door for more supersized buildings across the city.

“Given how common it’s become for developers to build extra-large buildings by claiming they’re community facilities, we’re all in big trouble if this ruling stands,” warns Andrew Berman, executive director of the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation.

The ruling certainly puts a new spin on the fate of the still empty—and increasingly decrepit—P.S. 64, which Singer bought at auction from the city for $3.15 million in 1998. (“Love It or Level It,” June 13, 2006). Singer declined to return phone calls. But his attorney, Jeffrey Glen, argues that because Singer submitted his dorm permit application before the school was landmarked, that landmarking should be moot.

At the same time, the ruling clears the way for Singer to pursue his $100 million lawsuit against Mayor Bloomberg, the Department of Buildings, the BSA, and the Landmarks Preservation Commission for allegedly colluding to thwart his dorm plan. (City officials dismiss the suit, which had been on hold pending the outcome of this case, as fiction.)

At stake here is whether developers like Singer should be required to prove an “institutional nexus” by having signed leases with participating schools before they are allowed to put up dorms. The city maintains this is necessary to prevent developers from exploiting the community-facility-use zoning “bonus” to build what are in essence oversized apartment buildings.

Though the lower court found the city’s argument “rational,” the notoriously conservative Appellate Division ruled that the city’s refusal to grant Singer a dorm permit constituted an “an impermissible administrative anticipatory punishment." Translation: you can't penalize an owner for violating the zoning unless or until he actually violates it.

Writing for the majority, Associate Justice James M. Catterson argued that if Singer failed to sign up any universities once the dorm goes up, the city could either revoke the building’s certificate of occupancy or sue him for violating the deed. (The deed requires that the property be for "community use," not residential housing.)

That doesn’t sit well with the neighbors. “So if he doesn’t lease it to schools, then what? Is the City going to make him tear it down?” asks Roland Legiardi-Laura, one of four East Village residents who sued Singer to try and stop him from chopping off P.S. 64’s ornate terra-cotta trim. (They lost and Singer chopped.)

“In all this time, he’s never been able to find a legitimate school entity to sign on with him,” Legiardi-Laura continues. “What makes them think he’ll find one now?”

Associate Justice Milton L. Williams also expressed doubts over Singer's intentions, referring in his dissenting opinion to the developer's "dubious and persistent efforts to evade" providing proof of participating schools.

Glenn scoffs at such concerns, insisting that if Singer builds it, the universities will come. “You’ve got students commuting 40 miles to go to school in Manhattan," he says. "The chances of this thing not having an enormous waiting list would be nil.”


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