What’s the Story at 16 Clinton Street?

Every tenement building has at least a few stories to tell. 16 Clinton St. may have more than most.   It was on this site in 1883 that German shoemaker Gottlieb Rudolph, suffering from malaria, took his own life (NYT).  In 1988, the federal government seized the building, as part of a high profile effort to rid Clinton Street of drug dealers. In 1996, local media descended on 16 Clinton, after the landlord declared the building unsafe and, according to residents, sought to have it condemned.

Given this colorful history, it’s not all that surprising that the tenement – now surrounded by upscale restaurants and boutiques – is once again in the spotlight. Last month, an EV Grieve reader reported 16 Clinton was being primed for demolition.  Several days later, we heard about the story again from Community Board 3, which had been contacted by two longtime residents of the building.

Residents have been photographing the activity behind 16 Clinton.

Those residents, tenant association leaders Salley May and Joan Moossy, had been watching nervously as workers moved building materials into the backyard and dug a trench.  A notice on the front door seemed to indicate the owners had approval from the Department of Buildings to “demolish 1st, 2nd and 3rd floor existing rear building.”  The rent stabilized and rent controlled tenants of 16 Clinton were understandably confused, since that rear building had been demolished decades earlier, in 1955.  After years of contentious dealings with their landlord, Laura Lei of East 11th Street, the tenants feared the worst. What were her real intentions, they wondered?

Their search for the answer to that question in the past month has been quite an ordeal.  But Moossy and May say it’s really just  the latest chapter in a 15 year battle to stay in their homes.  During a visit to 16 Clinton last week, they showed me some of the many documents and photos they’ve collected over the years, and explained why they find recent developments so alarming.

The tenants still have vivid memories of the 1996 dispute, in which the owner ordered the residents out, claiming the building was unstable.  They recall officials of an influential non-profit organization, Asian Americans for Equality, siding with the landlord, and offering to move them into temporary shelters.

As recently as the year 2000, there was a garden in the backyard. After workers began pouring cement for a foundation, they say, the Department of Buildings imposed a stop work order.  For 10 years, building materials remained in the yard, untouched. Then suddenly, just a few weeks ago, the work mysteriously began again.

After calling 311, talking with various people at the Department of Buildings and becoming more than a little frustrated, May and Moossy got in touch with Susan Stetzer, CB3’s district manager. She, in turn, spoke with contacts at the DOB, who concluded something seemed to be amiss. At the very least, it appeared the owner of 16 Clinton had not submitted plans describing the work she planned. Another stop work order was put in place, while inspectors looked into the matter.

Earlier this week, DOB officials met with the owner, Laura Lai, who explained she wanted to reconstruct the four story building that existed 50 years ago in the back half of the lot. Today Buildings spokesperson Carly Sullivan confirmed, “the owner can restore the rear segment of the building to its prior condition.”   If she wants to go forward, however, architectural plans will need to be submitted and approved.

Yesterday we spoke with Richard Lei, the owner’s son.  He said his mother had been under the impression  the original DOB application allowed her to resume work in the backyard. They were in the process of sorting out any misunderstanding that might have occurred, he said.  Lei said the construction does not entail creating a new foundation, but is actually merely an extension of the original building.

He indicated there will be new apartments in the back of the lot.  When asked about any work being done in front, he said there are plans for some minor renovations. Lei said his mother is not “an evil landlord trying to kick people out.” He added, she “wouldn’t do anything to harm them… we understand they will be there for awhile.”

Last month, workers removed building materials from the back of the building.

Residents say bricks and other building materials have been stored in the backyard for 10 years.

Residents snapped this photo showing a garden in the back of 16 Clinton, in 1987.

There are, of course, plenty of New York City landlords who have neglected buildings, refused to make repairs and allowed structural problems to fester.  Tenant activists have been critical of the DOB for failing to act quickly enough to save buildings from condemnation.  In the absence of specific plans, the residents of 16 Clinton feared their rent stabilized apartments could have been endangered.

Stetzer says, however, this is a case in which the city stepped in promptly. She believes the tenants did the right thing in coming to CB3 to deal with a confusing, “atypical” situation.  “This is what the community board is here for,” she said.

While May and Moossy are somewhat relieved that their building appears to be safe, for now, they remain vigilant. Moossy told me, in an email message (excerpted):

It is good that we kept filing complaints and persisted with the Buildings Department… Our landlord was working illegally in the backyard with a 10 year old permit, which, of course, she cannot do…There are no consequences to our landlord for this other than the delay while she applies for proper permits… This whole episode only reinforces that our landlord employs dishonest methods as a regular course of business.