EAST VILLAGE — Hundreds of protesters marched through the East Village Wednesday night in a push to reclaim a former community center and prevent a developer from converting it into college dorms.
The former P.S. 64 building on East Ninth Street near Avenue B, known as CHARAS or El Bohio Cultural and Community Center, was a haven for activists and artists for more than 30 years before a developer evicted the center in 2001.
The building has gone unused ever since, but its owner, Gregg Singer, has announced plans to convert the space into college dormitories, with schools including Cooper Union already signing onto the deal.
Led by a marching band and holding signs and huge puppets, the protesters said the building they restored as a community center more than three decades ago has always been theirs.
"The loss of this has been a gunshot wound," said Fringe Festival co-founder John Clancy, who joined the protest. "There was outrage, or disbelief is a better word."
Clancy, who is also the executive director of the League of Independent Theater, used the building for the Fringe Festival in 2000, hosting dozens of artistic organizations and streaming events online to countries all across the world.
"It is heartbreaking, and you think as each year goes by, the more it is going to cost to get it back," said Clancy, standing in front of the boarded-up building, with its smattering of broken windows.
March organizer Susan Howard said the eviction, followed by years of watching the building deteriorate, has been a “devastating blow."
"I don't think the owner knows how much damage he has done and how deep the hurt is," said Howard, who is also part of the group Save Our Community Center CHARAS-64 (SOCCC-64).
"It was a cross-pollination of so many people — activists and artists," Howard said of when the building operated as a community center. "You had [singing practice] in the plaza. You had AA meetings in the gallery, computer classes, English classes."
Carlos "Chino" Garcia, a founder of the community center who also leads the organization CHARAS, which now operates at other locations, said the community still needs the space.
"This neighborhood still has a lot of working-class people of all sorts, of all races," he said. "It should be a mecca for people, for artists."
In 1977, Garcia and others in the area began using the rundown former school as a community center, when the city-owned space was in such bad shape that even the doors had been stolen.
"People were using them as picnic tables and we went around to bring them all back," Garcia said.
Nonprofit groups, artists and activists restored and ran the building until the city sold it to Singer in 1999 for a little more than $3 million, according to Garcia.
Now the developer plans to spend $40 million to convert the building into dorms, with Cooper Union signing a 15-year lease for 200 beds, according to the Wall Street Journal.
The paper later reported students from Joffrey Ballet School will occupy another 120 beds if the building is converted.
Despite the outcry from local residents, Singer said the new dorms, which will be named University Place, will turn a "long vacant building into a dynamic dormitory for college students who are in serious need of safe housing with quality amenities."
"Their presence will be a boon to local businesses and will add to the cultural vibrancy of the neighborhood," he said in a statement.
He added that the deed for the building requires it to be used as a community facility "and a dormitory leasing to colleges or non-profits squarely falls into this category."
Protesters, including state Sen. Brad Hoylman, City Councilwoman Rosie Mendez and Assemblyman Brian Kavanagh, marched from the CHARAS building to Cooper Union for the rally.
New East Village resident and mother Tiffany Zerges said the community needs more space for local children and teenagers — not sleeping quarters for college students.
"It would be a huge asset to this community with so many young children," Zerges said. "This [the building] belongs to the city of New York."