At CB4 Full Board Meeting, Passion to Preserve Fulton Houses, Cushman Row, Irish History

House Judiciary Committee Chair Jerrold Nadler discusses impeachment proceedings in the nation’s capital. | Photo by Winnie McCroy

BY WINNIE McCROY | Community members gathered at W. 26th St.’s Hudson Guild Elliott Center on Wed, October 2 for the monthly meeting of Manhattan Community Board 4 (CB4). As rain gently buffered the windows of the Dan Carpenter Room, inside, discussions got heated over attempts to privatize Fulton Houses and proposed changes to a historic Cushman Row Greek Revival row house, but many cheered when U.S. Representative Jerrold Nadler arrived to discuss impeachment proceedings against President Trump.

“The major issue in Washington right now is, how do you hold accountable a president who violates all norms of Democratic, or Republican for that matter, sensibilities, who violates the law six ways from Sunday?” Nadler asked. “We are having hearings and there’s problems getting witnesses, there’s obstruction of Congress, and people are not supposed to ignore subpoenas. We’ve had all those problems, but now with the Ukraine business, there is an almost open and shut case, because we have the transcript of the phone call from the White House where the president is asking a foreign government to interfere in next year’s election by seeking dirt on his political opponent.”

Nadler noted Ukraine is at war with Russia and desperately needs the $400M of U.S. aid held up by the president this summer. Said Nadler, “The president says there is no quid pro quo, but after their pleasantries, the Ukraine president asked, ‘What about those missiles?’ and the president replied, ‘We’d like you to do us a favor though,’—the implication being that they would not get aid unless they do this favor. Republicans are trying to obfuscate by saying you can’t prove this is quid pro quo because he didn’t say that directly. But most Mafioso don’t, either.”

Even without the quid pro quo, said Nadler, it is still highly illegal to intervene in an election. Many witnesses are now coming forward, and six committees are investigating these charges. Nadler promised the Judiciary Committee would review all of these charges, and that “it would not be pleasant for the president.”

“Some people say, ‘Why bother, there is an election next year?’ ” Nadler said. “My answer is, we can’t normalize this behavior. We have to vindicate the Constitution; we have to send a message to the next President that this can’t be allowed. We have to maintain our Democratic norms, or else we will no longer have a Democratic government.”

Linda Ocasia and Daniel Ramirez say Fulton Houses needs repairs, not demolition. | Photo by Winnie McCroy

FULTON HOUSES RESIDENTS SAY NYCHA’S PLAN IS NOT ‘RAD’

Some residents of Fulton Houses joined with community activists and elected officials to decry a plan to privatize operation of 62,000 New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) apartments. The plan seeks to transfer these units to the Section 8 federal housing voucher program under the program Rental Assistance Demonstration (RAD), which permits operators to access federal subsidies.

In theory, residents pay the same rent and remain in their buildings, with private sector operators responsible for renovation and maintenance. But opponents say that in reality, RAD conversions at two NYCHA properties — Ocean Bay Houses in the Rockaways and Twin Parks West in Fordham Heights — have resulted in “cosmetic” changes, and Draconian rules imposed on residents.

In April, Politico revealed NYCHA was also secretly considering plans to demolish Fulton Houses and rebuild to include market-rate units. Advocates were concerned that any RAD conversion plans shifted into the more lucrative Section 18 might result in diminished protection for tenants, including the possibility that rent subsidies could end in 20 years. Many fear RAD opens the door to privatization of public assets, with little federal oversight.

“Fulton Houses is at risk of demolition,” said Linda Ocasia, who stood with Daniel Ramirez against RAD. “The residents took it upon ourselves to do some research, and the numbers just don’t add up. We took a tour of Ocean Bay and every area except the front door was marked ‘No Access.’ They need permission for guests to visit, even friends and family. They even need permission to be out on the grounds, which is ridiculous. And are the cameras we saw everywhere to protect or to surveil the residents? We don’t think RAD is right for us. We need repairs at Fulton Houses, and we’re asking all of you to find a way to get these funds, but not at the cost of the residents in our community. We will not have NYCHA dictate where we live just because of their mismanagement and debt.”

Elected officials shared this sentiment, with Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer saying, “Every single option has to be on the table, and we are all going to fight to make sure people agree on what these options are.”

Fight for NYCHA member Marni Halasa stood with Vera Naseva of Elliott-Chelsea Houses in urging CB4 to withdraw plans for privatization of NYCHA, saying, “Our tenants toured Ocean Bay and described it like a prison on lockdown. There are many strict rules, and if you don’t adhere to them, you can get evicted. If [NYC Mayor Bill] de Blasio succeeds in placing one-third of NYCHA properties in RAD hands, we predict over 4,000 public housing families will be evicted, adding to the city’s 70,000 homeless. We urge the West Side elected officials not just to make the right political calculation, but to have the courage to do what’s morally right.”

For his part, Assemblymember Richard Gottfried’s representative said that the NYCHA’s plans were currently at “a full halt, with all RFP dates completely off the calendar.” He promised to convene a community working group to take concerns directly to the mayor.

“There is quite a bit of controversy over Fulton Houses, and most elected officials are opposed to any demolition,” Nadler said. “The mayor has agreed to come back to the table to start over, with a working group of tenants, elected officials, and community members, for a planning process. Some people in the mayor’s administration are not too happy about this, but there will be no demolition under any circumstances. Hopefully in a few months, we will have an agreement the community can support.”

A team of advocates and lawyers seek to ensure renovation right to the historic Cushman Row home at 418 W 20th St. | Photo by Winnie McCroy

CHANGES FOR CUSHMAN ROW?

For the past several months, CB4 has been engaged in a battle over renovations to 418 W. 20th St. (btw. 8th & 9th Aves.). The home, purchased by real estate investor David Lesser for $7.9M in April, anchors the west end of Cushman Row, a historic strip of seven Greek Revival row houses built in 1840.

In May, CCN reported that CB4 had denied Lesser’s plan to demolish everything but the façade, sidewalls, and front roof slope. The rear roof and wall would have been knocked out, while new floors extended into the rear yard. Conservationists dubbed it a “slippery slope toward facadism,” the trend toward protecting only historic frontages, while new buildings are erected behind it.

On May 14, NYC’s Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC) conducted a public hearing on the proposal, and decided to approve proposed restoration to the front of the house, while denying alterations to the rear. On Sept. 4, Lesser’s attorney presented a revised submission to CB4, proposing to rebuild and extend the existing basement 30 feet and to better match fenestration, with the applicant citing structural deficiencies in the houses’ rear wall as a reason for removing it. CB4 members wrote in their letter that the “combined total of these modern extensions would certainly be more than slightly perceptible.” They also had concerns that the gut renovation, cellar excavation, and demolition of the back wall could destabilize the historic home, and change Cushman Row’s classic rear facade.

Chelsea Land Use (CLU) co-chair Betty Mackintosh noted, “Their current proposal doesn’t include the former rear extension on the second or third floor, which was previously denied, but the bad news is, again, the rear extension. Visibility can be debated, but we’re saying it would be visible from buildings looking down on it, and the proposed rear window pattern is inconsistent with the rest of Cushman Houses.

Land Use lawyer Deirdre A. Carson, of GT Law, and her, associate Peter Mezey, asked CB4 to strike from their letter the language they used, as there would be “no evidence of the renovations, as the two-story extension would be minimally visible from the street.” With regards to complaints that changes in the rear would be visible from above, Carson noted, “As a matter of law, the ability to see an addition from a higher floor has no legal basis.”

“We are also concerned that the rear wall would be demolished, and the cellar extension could destabilize the house and other nearby houses, as has happened in other Historic Districts,” Mackintosh added. “They care about consistency in these historic buildings.”

Betty Mackintosh reviews Chelsea Land Use issues. | Photo by Winnie McCroy

An internal debate over facadism proceeded, with some board members supporting the idea of returning the building to a single-family home. CB4 member Paul Devlin called the language in CB4’s denial letter “strident and obstructionist,” adding “the rest of the block is falling into disrepair, with 404 an idle property. I would hate to see 418 fall into the same rut.”

Other board members argued interior changes would indeed affect the exterior, meaning the classic window pattern would be changed. Some, like Clinton/Hell’s Kitchen Land Use (CHKLU) committee chair JD Noland, took umbrage over the fact that Carson and associates attended the CB4 meeting not to assure them that the historic home would be preserved, but to “say we accused them of libel, with a pursuant lawsuit.”

CHKLU committee member Frank Holozubiec struggled with their motives, noting, “The engineer looked at the rear wall and only said that it was not the original brick work. Are they now objecting to keeping the rear wall? They couldn’t even say so tonight.”

In the end, Mackintosh agreed to amend the letter, with CLU co-chair Lee Compton adding they would take everyone’s comments “into account and make the language of the letter more consistent with the professionalism we usually exhibit.”

CB4 District Manager Jesse Bodine eventually called the issue to a vote, carefully tallying 26 in favor of denying their application, and 9 opposed.

ELECTED OFFICIALS ENACT CHANGES

Many elected officials attended the meeting, among them Nadler, Brewer, and Assemblymember Linda Rosenthal. In addition, representatives were present from the offices of Assemblymember Richard Gottfried, District Attorney Cyrus Vance, and Congressperson Carolyn Maloney.

Rosenthal bemoaned unsuccessful efforts to ban flavored e-cigarettes, noting retailers “say adults need choice, but now kids are hooked. They don’t know how to quit, and that’s Juul’s [e-cigarette company Juul Labs] mission, using the tobacco company’s playbook from the past. Now that there are deaths and illnesses, people are worried.” San Francisco banned e-cigarettes until the FDA approves them as a smoking cessation device. Maloney is attempting to pass similar laws here.

She also spoke about a New York study of the unabated opioid epidemic; as well as the need for campaign finance reform, to get money from corporate interests out of politics. Rosenthal’s office will offer flu shots on Oct. 7.

Brewer said as Census 2020 approaches, they “look forward to the recruitment of at least three different sections of people who want jobs doing the Census, and there has been a huge turnout.”

Brewer also noted her office was taking part of the Manhattan Paper Challenge, a year-long competition to increase recycling. Said Brewer, “The top three Community Boards who participate will win funding [totaling $75,000] to give to environmental organizations in their community.”

Along with City Councilmember Helen Rosenthal, she passed a Vacancy-Tracking Bill, which will chart every empty retail location in New York, so they can “assess what the vacancy is and what we can do about it.” Brewer has proposed rank choice voting for city elections, so people can choose their top picks, and announced plans to speed up the ULURP (Uniform Land Use Review Procedure) process. She also bemoaned the mayor’s decision to impose eight-year term limits to Community Board members, saying, “He doesn’t understand the importance of having someone with the kind of institutional knowledge that takes more than eight years to get.” Brewer’s office will also hold their Make Manhattan Mine: Aging With Ease event on October 27, at John Jay College.

Several elected officials weighed in on the longstanding negotiations CB4 and CB5 are undergoing with Port Authority, regarding their renovation plans. Gottfried’s office noted that among their requirements, “Port Authority must build a new terminal in the space, get any and all buses off the streets, and must use no eminent domain in the surrounding community as part of their construction plans.”

CB4 member Burt Lazarin said a working group had met with Port Authority for an informational presentation, but, “Generally, we were very displeased with the presentation, and we let them know. They gave us reasons why they couldn’t create additional park space, threw out some imaginary number that was sky high, and then listened to our reaction. This conversation will continue, but next time with representatives of elected officials in a full meeting in which CB5 will also be involved.”

Gottfried also announced that new legislation now allows New York State students—regardless of whether they are part- or full-time, in a two- or four-year program—a free college education at all SUNY and CUNY colleges. This expands eligibility beyond the previous Excelsior program.

In addition, Gottfried informed community members that landlord lawyers would be on hand to help all on Oct. 28 at Hell’s Kitchen’s Hartley House, and that legislation will move the deadline for voter registration from October 11 to February 14.

Nadler’s new wins include the passage in the House of the Forced Arbitration Injustice Repeal (FAIR) Act, to outlaw the contractual demand that people submit to private dispute resolution rather than class action suits. Forced arbitration is routinely used in contracts for credit cards. Nadler felt it was a violation of the 7th Amendment right to a jury trial. He also passed a bill that allows artists to access small claims court in matters of copyright infringement, a much more affordable option than hiring a lawyer .

District Attorney Cyrus Vance’s representative noted their office had expanded to all boroughs the Saturday Night Lights program, providing free athletics to youth aged 11-18 during evening hours. Their office is also no longer prosecuting 16- and 17-year-olds, whose cases will now go to Family Court.

And Congressperson Carolyn Maloney’s office noted that they had fully funded the James Zadroga 9/11 Health and Compensation Act, passed the Maloney Bill to Close Trading Loophole, and introduced the Gun Show Loophole Closing Act, and the Bipartisan Financial Transparency Act.

They also announced a bill to create a Women’s History Museum, reauthorize the Debbie Smith Crime Victims Protection Act, and called for the passage of HR 4197, The Revitalizing Cities Through Parks Enhancement (RECIPE) Act, increasing community garden green spaces.

HELL’S KITCHEN IRISH HERITAGE MEMORIALIZED

Agenda Item 3 dealt with a letter to New York City Council Speaker Corey Johnson, regarding the Hell’s Kitchen Historic District Report (Johnson’s area of coverage includes Chelsea). Bodine provided the final version of a letter for voting, which outlined CB4’s retaining the services of historian Anthony W. Robins of Thomson & Columbus Inc. to review the architecture and history of Hell’s Kitchen, to identify potential historic districts to recommend to LPC. They came up with the Hell’s Kitchen Historic District and the Paddy’s Market Historic District.

The Hell’s Kitchen Historic District seeks to preserve the row houses, tenements and related buildings from W. 43rd St. to W. 53rd St., between 9th and 10th Aves. They propose to protect buildings evidencing the architectural style distinct to this section of the city.

And the proposed Paddy’s Market District would consist of Ninth Ave., between W. 35th and W. 40th St., where one of the best-known pushcart markets in Manhattan was located. The District would include 51 buildings, most of them pre-law or old-law tenements from 1868 to the late 1890s.

Said Noland, “The term ‘paddy’ is a term this Board recognizes could be a slur on the Irish. But the committee feels that since this was the term used in 1890, and the term used about this place in the New York Times, it was the term we should use in this draft.”

“There is no feeling from the committee that we want to be insulting to the Irish, but my last name is Noland and my feeling is that if the history of the Irish people in Hell’s Kitchen is going to be commemorated in two ways—Paddy’s Market and the Irish Arts Center—then we have achieved tremendous recognition of the contributions the Irish made to Hell’s Kitchen and the city.”

The next full board meeting of CB4 will be held at 6:30pm on Wed., Nov. 6, at Mount Sinai West’s 2nd floor Conference Room. Arrive early to sign up for the Public Comment section, where anyone can speak on topics of their choosing for two minutes. For more info about CB4, visit their website by clicking here.

Clinton/Hell’s Kitchen Land Use Chair JD Noland, standing, presents items for vote. | Photo by Winnie McCroy
At left, CB4 District Manager Jesse Bodine carefully tallies up support for planned renovations at an historic Cushman Row home. | Photo by Winnie McCroy

 

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