EAST VILLAGE — While a Long Island university is imploring the city to give the green light to convert part of a long-derelict school building into dorm rooms for its students, community members and elected officials are pushing the city to stall the plan out of fear it may be a scheme to skirt the property's deed restriction and deprive the neighborhood of a community facility.
Nearly two decades after its purchase by developer Gregg Singer, the languishing former P.S. 64 building at 605 E. Ninth St. is in limbo as the city determines whether a plan to lease parts of the facility to Adelphi University while carrying out renovations on the whole building is in keeping with a deed restriction requiring community facility use.
School officials are urging the city to hurry up and issue the necessary permits so students can occupy the dorms by next fall. Adelphi's executive vice president of finance and administration in November sent a letter to Mayor Bill de Blasio asking him to "expedite obtaining the requested building permit from the DOB," stating students will need the dorm rooms by fall 2018 as the school expands its Manhattan campus.
But elected officials, invoking the Rivington House fiasco, penned a letter to the Department of Buildings commissioner asking that the department keep the project on hold, insisting that allowing construction while the space is only partially occupied could allow the developer to circumvent the "community facility" requirement.
"Considering that this community suffered a devastating loss in Rivington House due to a deed restriction debacle, we believe it is imperative to be proactive in preventing a similar scenario," reads the letter, signed by Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer, Councilwoman Rosie Mendez, state Sen. Brad Hoylman, and Assemblyman Brian Kavanagh.
A stop-work order remains on the property from 2015, when Singer was in talks with other prospective tenants. The agreement with those tenants was initially approved in 2013, but later found to be in violation of the city's "Dorm Rule" — stipulations under which dorms meet the "community facility" requirement — according to DOB reps.
A stop-work order was placed on the property while the issue was resolved, according to the DOB. During that time, the tenants dropped out of the prospective leases, said Singer's lawyer.
Singer submitted the proposal with Adelphi as a tenant in March 2016. The DOB again signed off on a request to carry out construction on the building while listing several floors as vacant the following May, an amendment to the original 2013 proposal, but the plan for Adelphi to occupy the building has not been approved. The stop-work order from 2015 remains in place.
Neighborhood groups such as the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation and the East Village Community Coalition continue to rally to stop Singer's plan, claiming even the floors leased by Adelphi will become "dorms for hire," as Adelphi's lease only obligates the university to occupy a fraction of the beds across two floors. Singer's attorney, however, noted that any excess beds would only be leased to other accredited educational institutions.
The letter from elected officials asks the DOB to rescind its approval and examine whether the new lease with Adelphi is in keeping with the dorm rule. The department is currently reviewing the plan and has yet to make a determination, said a spokesman.
“The application to create a student dorm remains under review by the Department of Buildings," said DOB spokesman Alexander Schnell. "The department has made clear to the owner that any new occupancy permit will strictly adhere to the deed restriction, which is for community facility use which excludes residential or commercial tenants.”
Elected officials are now also calling on City Hall to step in and review the department's ruling to ensure the developer doesn't skirt the deed restriction, according to the borough president's office. The mayor's office did not return a request for comment.
But there is no scheme to get around the deed restriction, said Singer's attorney, who noted the previous agreement with the DOB would make it next to impossible anyway — the department only signed off on the plan under the condition that the owner would get a temporary certificate of occupancy while it is partially occupied, requiring a renewal every 60 to 90 days.
"Basically, if we tried to sneak somebody into the upper floors of the building, the buildings department could know about it in 90 days before they renewed our temporary certificate of occupancy," said attorney Kenneth Fisher.
"On top of that, who in their right mind would think Adelphi would tolerate that for five minutes?"
But the real issue, argued Fisher, is that community activists don't want Singer converting the building into dorms.
"A lot of what they’ve put out there is just smoke, and they say they’re trying to just protect the integrity of the dorm rule when the fact of the matter is they don’t want a dorm there at all," said Fisher.
In fact, activists are clear that while they are concerned about any potential abuse of the dorm rule, their long-term plan is to oust Singer altogether and reclaim the facility for an unspecified cultural or community-centric use.
"Ultimately our goal is for Singer to give up control of the building and to have some real, true community facility use put back in there," said Andrew Berman of the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation, which has spearheaded the fight for the facility.
A community meeting determining how to proceed with the plan to stop Singer will be held on Jan. 18 at 6:30 p.m. at 710 E. 10th St.