Developer of Former CHARAS Building Plunges Into East Village City Council Campaign

Rendering of student dorm proposal at 605 East Ninth St.

Rendering of student dorm proposal at 605 East Ninth St.

Gregg Singer, a developer determined to turn the former CHARAS/El Bohio community center into a student dorm, is showing his exasperation with local City Council member Rosie Mendez. In fact, Singer’s frustration has prompted him to become directly involved in District 2’s City Council campaign. Earlier this week, he was spotted at the Gompers public housing complex on the Lower East Side, distributing a flyer in support of three rivals of Carlina Rivera, a close Mendez ally and the perceived frontrunner in today’s Primary Election.

We heard yesterday afternoon from Council member Mendez, who confronted Singer outside the Gompers Houses. We later spoke with Singer’s attorney, who discussed Singer’s irritation with the local elected official.

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Here’s the flyer circulating this week. It promotes, “3 great candidates” for District 2, including Jasmin Sanchez, Mary Silver and Jorge Vasquez. The piece does not mention the dorm proposal in the former CHARAS building, which was previously home to P.S. 64. The flyer is purportedly from an organization called “Friends of the Lower Eastside.” While there is a group called Friends of the Lower East Side, its leaders confirm for us that they had nothing to do with the flyer (Friends of the LES is a preservation organization sympathetic to community activists fighting to reopen the CHARAS community center).

Just yesterday, a story in Crain’s asserted that the issue, “has divided the Democrats seeking an open City Council seat in Manhattan.” Singer purchased the East Ninth Street school building from the city in 1998 for $3.3 million, ejecting the community center in 2001. Local activists have fought different dormitory plans over the years and have urged the city administration to seize the building. There’s a “community facility” deed restriction on the property. While the Department of Buildings approved a previous dorm plan, it has held up Singer’s latest proposal to lease a portion of the building to Adelphi University.

Carlina Rivera told us last night that she witnessed Singer stuffing flyers under doors at Gompers. He was accompanied, said Rivera, by Jorge de Yarza, an East Village restaurant owner and supporter of Mary Silver. Rivera said she asked Singer about “Friends of the Lower Eastside, and he indicated that it is a group of people who want someone other than Rivera in the City Council. A short time later, Mendez encountered Singer at Gompers. Mendez said he accused her of working behind the scenes at the Buildings Department to make sure the project remains stalled. Mendez said she explained to Singer that the city requires a plan for the entire building, and that he would likely win approval from the city if he complied. Mendez scoffed at the idea that she wields enough influence with the administration to stop any project from moving forward.

Singer (right) at the Gompers Houses. This photo was taken by Carlina Rivera.

Singer (right) at the Gompers Houses. This photo was taken by Carlina Rivera.

It appears that Singer’s local political activism was prompted, at least in part, by the candidates’ responses to a survey conducted by the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation. In the candidate survey, Rivera, Jorge Rivera and a third contender, Ronnie Cho,  signaled a desire to win the building back for the community. Mary Silver and Jasmin Sanchez, however, indicated a willingness to sit down with Singer, to work out a compromise and to finally end the protracted battle. Silver wrote, “The PS 64/Charas-El Bohio building is under private ownership, which means that the community will have to work with the current owner… I don’t believe the community is served by allowing the building to sit abandoned for another 20 years.”

When asked last night about his client’s political activities on the Lower East Side, attorney David Schwartz, said, “These people (meaning Mendez and her allies) have been behind keeping this piece of land vacant for 19 years.” Schwartz added, “It was bought fair and square (at auction)… It’s outrageous what (Council member Mendez) has done to this community.” Schwartz said he has no idea who’s behind the flyer and he noted that Singer isn’t endorsing any one candidate. He alluded to the possibility of a lawsuit to force the city to sign off on the dorm plan, but expressed hopes that Mendez’s successor will “do what’s right for the community.” Schwartz said reopening the building as a dorm would help local businesses and revitalize the immediate area. He asserted that the Buildings Department has no legal reason to keep the project from going forward.

We reached out to candidates Silver, Vasquez and Sanchez. Silver did not respond, while Vasquez said he was tied up in meetings as the campaign entered its final hours. Sanchez told us she has never seen the flyer and does not know who’s behind it. Sanchez said she met with Singer, who “did not ask for anything” from her. She told us, “Singer purchased this building. He’s the owner.”

Sanchez added, “While it’s sad that the community lost the CHARAS space, we can’t just keep yelling about it.” She said the dorm project could generate business for local shops and restaurants, and that ending the feud is in the best interests of the neighborhood.