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In Epic Battle for CHARAS/El Bohio Building, Owner Gregg Singer Buys Time With Bankruptcy Filing

It’s been 25 years since the Giuliani administration sold a beloved Puerto Rican-led East Village community center to an owner who’s still trying to outmaneuver both his creditors and neighborhood stakeholders.

SHARE In Epic Battle for CHARAS/El Bohio Building, Owner Gregg Singer Buys Time With Bankruptcy Filing

Anne Edris paints a plywood wall surrounding the shuttered P.S. 64 building in the East Village, March 22, 2023.

Safiyah Riddle/THE CITY

In the latest twist in a decades-long battle for control of a derelict former public school building in the East Village, the property’s owner has filed for bankruptcy to head off a scheduled foreclosure auction.

Until 2001 the building housed a cultural center called CHARAS/El Bohio. On Wednesday morning, advocates protested in front of a DoubleTree hotel in Midtown, pressing to restore the former P.S. 64 to community use — throwing flour across the sidewalk, banging plastic drums, and brandishing signs demanding that the beloved building be returned to the community.

“We’re more than 20 years in, and we have not given up,” said Anne Edris, one of the protesters on West 51st Street outside the hotel where the auction was supposed to take place. “That says a lot right there.”

The night before, the ownership entity belonging to Singer, 9th and 10th Street LLC, filed for bankruptcy in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District, an action that halts any sale.

Developer Gregg Singer bought the sprawling 135,000-square-foot building from the Giuliani administration for $3.15 million in 1998, at a time when the city was selling off unused property. 

Yet the building was still being used when the city put it up for sale, thriving for two decades after a mostly Puerto Rican group of community activists rehabilitated the former elementary school. El Bohio, which translates to “the hut” in Spanish, offered everything from food pantries and shelter to language services and free arts classes. 

CHARAS supporters were ready in Midtown to protest a planned auction that was cancelled, March 22, 2023.

Safiyah Riddle/THE CITY

It was run primarily by a local group called CHARAS, an acronym of the founding members Chino Garcia, Humberto Crespo, Angelo González, Roy Battiste, Anthony Figueroa and Sal Becker. 

At the first auction in 1998, activists were arrested for releasing thousands of crickets in the effort to deter buyers. Two and a half years later Singer successfully evicted the last remnants of CHARAS from the building. That was only the beginning of a decades-long battle for the building that now remains far from resolution.

“This is something that’s just a part of the community, that you hope will always be there and you can trust,” said Edris, who said she was one of the first artists to have a painting studio in the building, in 1980. 

On Monday night, she and other locals gathered to paint a mural on the boarded entrance to the building. “I don’t know if there’s a word for that. But I want it for the generations to come.” 

Trespassing Teens

In the 22 years since Singer evicted local activists, he has been unable to get needed approvals to modify the building and garner revenue. In 2006, the city Landmarks Preservation Commission protected the building as historically significant, which prevented any construction of additional floors and protected those elements of the building’s edifice that Singer had not already destroyed

Singer’s subsequent plan to turn the building into collegiate dorms were complicated by the arrival of Rule 51, also known as the Dorm Rule, which gives control over the building to the educational institution — rather than the landlord — and mandates 10-year leases. At different times, Adelphi University and Cooper Union tentatively agreed to lease the building before backing out of negotiations, according to court documents. 

Local elected officials have urged all three mayors who have passed through City Hall since the building’s purchase to intervene and return the building to the community. None have acted.

On Wednesday afternoon, after the anticipated auction did not happen, City Councilmember Carlina Rivera told THE CITY that she and her constituents want answers.

“After decades of efforts to return CHARAS/El Bohio to community use, our neighborhood and the tireless activists and artists of SOCCC-64 deserve concrete answers about the future of this beloved cultural center,” said Rivera, a Democrat who grew up in and presently represents the area, referring to the “Save Our Community Center CHARAS-64” group of advocates that’s met to strategize over the years.

“In discussions with advocates and the Mayor’s Office, my team had hoped that the foreclosure auction would present a real opportunity to reclaim CHARAS. Unfortunately, this building with tremendous potential is denied realization as it is involved in one court procedure after another,” she said.

Following the foreclosure auction’s announcement in December, P.S. 64’s exterior was cleaned and sealed, and artists like Marta have decorated it.

Safiyah Riddle/THE CITY

Last week, protesters and community leaders and elected officials rallied outside of City Hall to renew the call for Mayor Eric Adams to bring CHARAS back to local use. 

In 2017, former Mayor Bill de Blasio expressed interest in buying the building from Singer to do just that, but made no progress.

In the meantime, the building has only been used by adventurous trespassing teenagers and people looking for a place to sleep. 

In December 2022, a Manhattan State Supreme court judge ruled in favor of Madison Realty Capital — the real estate private equity firm that lent Singer $44 million in 2016 — forcing Singer into foreclosure after five years of litigation. 

According to the judge’s ruling, Singer’s debt to Madison Realty Capital has ballooned to $90 million with interest and additional charges.

The bankruptcy case prevents Madison Realty Capital from seizing and selling the building for the time being. According to Singer’s initial filing, his project is now at least $100 million in debt to over half a dozen lenders. 

“Gregg Singer will exploit any legal maneuver and delay tactic he can find in his quest to destroy this building and keep it from returning to a useful public purpose,” said Andrew Berman, executive director of Village Preservation and longtime opponent of Singer’s ownership and management of the building. “But he always ultimately fails, as he will here.”

Village Preservation headed the charge to landmark the building in 2006, and was named in a 2018 federal lawsuit filed by Singer, alleging that the group, along with de Blasio and Rivera, “tortiously” stymied his efforts to develop the property. While that lawsuit has been dismissed, Singer’s appeal in a separate state case filed against de Blasio and the Department of Buildings, among others, is pending.

Singer could not be reached for comment. 

Keeping the Spirit Alive

By 1979, the financial crisis of the past decade had ravaged the neighborhood: some property owners were lighting buildings on fire to collect insurance, others left buildings to rot. When Angie Hernandez began to rehabilitate the building with CHARAS, she and her four children were squatting in an apartment building on East 4th Street that often had no heat or hot water. 

David Soto, who went to CHARAS as a child, opened up an art space across the street from the former community center, March 22, 2023.

Safiyah Riddle/THE CITY

She remembers how the bottom floor of El Bohio was initially flooded, forcing organizers to use plastic boats to get around. 

“It’s so devastating when we lost the building because we had been there,” Hernandez told THE CITY. “For the children, the community, everything was being done there. Then it was taken away. For them not to do anything with it is ridiculous.”

Last May, her son, David Soto, began renting out a small store front across the street from El Bohio’s former building. He named it Piraguas Art Space, after the Puerto Rican ice cones that vendors sell from street corners in the summer. Soto — who goes by DāSo — grew up taking art and music classes in CHARAS/El Bohio, and says he hopes Piragua can keep the spirit of CHARAS alive.

But his mom hasn’t been able to afford to live in the area, and has since moved to Staten Island. Hernandez is now battling cancer, and craves a space where she could reunite with El Bohio’s founding members, whom she considers family. 

“It’s hard for me to say,” Hernandez said when she was asked what specifically she wanted to see the building used for. “But you know what could be the future of this? It could be a reconnection to start where we left off.”

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