City Slip-Ups Allow Hell’s Kitchen Residential Demolition - Manhattan Express | Manhattan Express

City Slip-Ups Allow Hell’s Kitchen Residential Demolition

Despite their location within the Special Clinton District, a pair of four-story residential buildings at 335-337 W. 55th St. did not have sufficient protection from efforts by their owner to demolish them. | Photo by Levar Alonzo

BY LEVAR ALONZO | At its most recent meeting, Community Board 4 members and elected officials on hand were up in arms as they discussed lapses by the Department of Buildings (DOB) that are allowing for the demolition of two more residential buildings in Hell’s Kitchen.

The pair of four-story buildings at 335-337 W. 55th St. that are zoned in the Special Clinton District currently sit surrounded by scaffolding and construction netting.

According to DOB records, the building owner filed for a series of alterations that included adding two more floors, extending the rear, removing the interior stairway, and placing a passenger elevator in the building. The DOB approved the application for the alterations in 2012 but the form made no mention of full-scale demolition.

“We learn that the DOB tolerates when developers lie to them on forms that are filed,” said State Assemblymember Richard Gottfried at the Oct. 4 full board meeting of CB4. “I get angry when people lie to me. It doesn’t seem to bother the DOB much, because when they follow up on a complaint they tell the developers just file new paperwork.”

CB4 believes that the landowner checked off in their paperwork that the plan was for alterations in order to mask the complete demolition and rebuilding of the buildings, a technique they are very familiar with. The board also noted that the owner had managed to eliminate all the residential units in the buildings.

“This is a far too common problem in our neighborhoods. Landlords or owners file with the DOB for alterations to be done on their buildings, but those changes often include a full scale demo,” said CB4 member Joe Restuccia, who also serves as executive director of Clinton Housing Development Company. “If you walk by these buildings today, you will see for yourself the full scale demolition that is happening.”

In a proposed letter to the DOB, which has the unanimous support of the full community board, the CB4 Clinton/ Hell’s Kitchen Land Use Committee asked the city to place an immediate Stop Work Order on the buildings.

The letter expressed the board’s outrage and requested that the DOB “treat this matter with the urgency it requires.”

Elsewhere in the letter, the committee noted, “The owner, who filed renovation work under the DOB, has not only exceeded the scope of work described in the job application, but also successfully vacated the building and demolished all the residential units.”

When asked what can be done about the DOB allowing faulty demolition applications to go through in special districts, Gottfried urged CB4 to be relentless in writing letters, and then decide when they are going to start sending copies of the letters to the press.

One frustrated board member asked Gottfried to give them ideas about how not to just throw away paper in the form of complaints in fighting with landowners and holding the DOB accountable.

“Keep at it. Keep writing letters to the District Attorney’s Office. Inundate them with case after case after case,” he said. “This could have a cumulative effect, and in the process add the DOB and the mayor’s office to the emails.”

Gottfried noted that he has been urging Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance, Jr., to go after landowners that deceive city agencies.

“If you file faulty paperwork to the government to get anything from the government, that’s a felony,” said Gottfried. “We need to start going after these landlords and owners.”

Joe Restuccia (second from left) at a Sept. meeting of CB4’s Clinton/ Hell’s Kitchen Land Use Committee. | Photo by Levar Alonzo

Restuccia explained that even though special districts protect the buildings on W. 55th St., reasons for slip-ups within the DOB could be due to high turnover rates and new workers in the DOB unfamiliar with how specific neighborhoods are protected.

“Buildings in the special districts can only be demolished if the city determines they are unsafe or they certify the landlord did not harass tenants into leaving,” he said. “Then there is a public comment period by the community board.”

He noted that since last year, 21 buildings have been identified in special districts where landowners have sought to demolish the building contrary to special zoning requirements.

In response to board member questions and in an effort to offer some encouragement, CB4 chairperson Delores Rubin said that the DOB has been working with local elected officials and the board to place tags and flags on addresses in some areas to signify special districts.

“We do have a meeting with the chief administrative officer of the agency, so hopefully we will be able to move this conversation along to a more serious level,” Rubin said. “As we know resources are thin throughout the agencies. That tends to be the reason they cite that they can’t catch these offenders.”

One cause for hope is final passage in the City Council of a full package of tenant protections against unscrupulous landlords and building owners. On September 27, the last of 12 measures supported by the Stand For Tenant Safety Coalition won approval at the Council. With significant new safeguards required at the DOB and elsewhere for detecting landlord abuses, enforcing existing policies, and protecting tenants, the package of measures should encourage a meaningful shift toward prioritizing tenant issues at the agency and across city government.

Lawmaking, of course, is only a start. Time will tell how effective the measures are in curbing longstanding and widespread abuses.

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