The following op/ed was written by Harry Bubbins, East Village & Special Projects Director of the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation. The Lo-Down welcomes Lower East Side-relevant submissions from members of our community. They may be sent to: firstname.lastname@example.org. Editorials on this website represent the opinion of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial viewpoint of The Lo-Down.
To protest the possibility of a “Rivington House 2.0” scenario now seemingly being engineered by the NYC Department of Buildings, over one hundred supporters and elected officials rallied on the steps of City Hall on Valentine’s Day. We are calling again, and in yet another public forum, on the mayor to personally make sure such a scandal does not repeat in our community.
The similarities between Rivington House, where a formerly city-owned property had its deed restriction removed to allow a developer to turn it into for-profit housing, and the formerly city-owned P.S. 64/Charas-El Bohio Community Center, are astounding. Both are located on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. Both were schools built at the turn of the last century, designed by the same architect, the renowned CBJ Snyder. The magnificent structures have both been described as cathedrals of education, and they later served as important community resources for decades after the schools within closed. That is until two seemingly different mayors oversaw their wrenching sales.
Rivington House was until last year a nursing home, which served thousands over a period of 20 years. The deed restriction that required a community use on the property was actually lifted by the de Blasio administration, and the property promptly sold for luxury condominiums. As widely reported, the lobbying firm Capalino+Company “bombarded the de Blasio administration” with requests for their clients, including the developers of Rivington House, successfully pushing the administration to lift the deed restriction. James Capalino subsequently denied involvement in that effort.
[Editor’s note: Following the publication of this opinion piece, we heard from a spokesperson for James Capalino about the contention by the author that the high powered lobbyist worked for the developers of Rivington House. The spokesperson said it’s a factually inaccurate claim. In an April 2016 story in The Lo-Down, Capalino stated that he did not represent any of the current property owners in the Rivington House matter. Capalino did have business with Slate Property Group, one of the developers, in unrelated Brooklyn-based projects. He also represented the original nursing home operator, VillageCare, through October of 2014, one year before the deed restriction was lifted. Capalino’s contract was terminated by VillageCare when negotiations stalled with the city over financial terms of the deed removal.]
Is it coincidental then that the Capalino firm has been retained by Gregg Singer, the owner of the former P.S. 64 building on East 9th Street? For decades that property had been used productively as a community and cultural center until Mayor Giuliani sold the building, over vocal protests, to a local developer, albeit with a legally required restrictive deed that limited use of the property to a “community facility.”
While at Rivington House the developer sought and the city allowed the lifting of the deed restriction, at old P.S. 64, Singer and his lobbyists are simply seeking loopholes that would allow them to get around the restrictions and render them meaningless. Their target? Rules governing dorms.
Despite what many may think, dorms are considered under city law to be community facilities. But there are strict rules regulating this type of use. The “dorm rule” was enacted ten years ago to ensure that developments claiming to be dorms satisfy the community facility requirement. They must have signed ten year leases, with an accredited non-profit educational institution covering the entire dorm. The Department of Buildings cannot issue permits for work on any part of the dorm until the required lease is in place for the entire facility.
At PS 64/Charas, the developer clearly has not fulfilled this requirement, and yet the de Blasio administration’s Department of Buildings has issued a terrible ruling that would allow this, or any developer for that matter, to proceed with work on an entire dorm, with the required agreements in place for only fraction of the building. This ruling must be overturned to save this building and prevent future “Rivington Houses.”
Even worse, in this specific instance, the lease submitted from the proposed tenant, Adelphi University, is bogus because it allows the developer to actually rent out 90% of the beds not to Adelphi, but to whomever he likes. That makes this a quintessential “dorm for hire” or “Fake Dorm,” and, therefore, a prohibited use under the deed restriction.
Thanks to local leaders and elected officials, a stop work order has been in place and illegal work is on pause. And while the Department of Buildings has not approved the revolving door lease Singer has submitted, the agency has not rejected it either. So the matter is far from resolved.
The Mayor needs to rescind the wrongly issued DOB ruling that allows work to proceed on purported dorm projects like this without the requisite approved lease in place for the entire planned facility. And he must reject the phony lease for the site that makes a mockery of even the idea of this being a true dorm for an educational institution. If he does not, Mayor de Blasio will be finishing Mayor Giuliani’s dirty work begun nearly twenty years ago. In so doing, he would once again be doing Capalino’s bidding, and a precious community resource on the Lower East Side will no longer benefit the community.
Learn more here gvshp.org/PS64.