At Rivington House Forum, Personal Stories and Pledges to Keep Up Pressure on the Mayor

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If you ask the mayor, there’s little or no hope of returning Rivington House to the Lower East Side community. But at a forum held this past weekend, local activists from Neighbors to Save Rivington House made it clear they’re not giving up on a campaign to wrest control of the former nursing home from luxury condo developers.

More than a year ago, Slate Property Group, China Vanke and Adam America Real Estate acquired the building at 45 Rivington St. for $116 million after city officials inexplicably lifted deed restrictions on the property. While Mayor de Blasio has repeatedly expressed his anger about that decision by his own administration, he has said there’s no legal way to reverse it.  A “stop work order” remains in place but the Department of Buildings could lift in any day.

The point of this past Sunday’s forum, held across the street from Rivington House at University Settlement, was to keep the issue in the public eye. It was also meant to set the stage for a community visioning process to reimagine Rivington House as a modern-day health care facility. Panels of experts and community members put forth ideas for creating a new model for senior care at Rivington.

Caroline Loevner with Beau at University Settlement.

Caroline Loevner with Beau at University Settlement.

The forum was largely focused on personal stories — firsthand accounts from people with longtime ties to the former AIDS nursing home during its 20 years of operation on the Lower East Side.

One impromptu speaker (she wasn’t on the official schedule) was Caroline Loevner, who along with her therapy dog, Beau, was a regular volunteer at Rivington House during a six-year period. Loevner called the center, “a place of hope,” and said she’d come to Sunday’s event to give everyone, “a sense of how important Rivington House was to the residents, of how important Rivington House was to us.”

Loevner recalled a farewell event before the center closed in which she told residents, “We celebrated birthdays and holidays. We shared memories. We were family. We were there in the last days of life. There is something incredibly special about Rivington House: a sense of home, a sense of community, a sense of love, a sense of hope. As I look back through the years, I can’t help but smile. I learned so much from every resident. They taught me what life is all about.”

Loevner said Beau still wears his Rivington House ID. She made a promise to residents, “that Beau and I would be there until the end and we (would) follow them to their next journey in life.” Loevner said they now make regular trips to the Terence Cardinal Cooke Health Care Center in Harlem, where some of the residents were relocated.

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Another speaker on Sunday was Rosemary Shields, a dietician who worked at Rivington House after first becoming familiar with the center in an earlier position at Gouverneur Health. “The kindness that I saw at Rivington House,” said Shields, “was pretty remarkable.” She added, “It made me very sad when this group of people (the residents) was kind of scattered to the winds… I would love to see Rivington House returned for mixed levels of care, for mixed population, for whatever the community needs.”

There was also a presentation from Andrew Knox, an architect who evaluated the property some years ago. He pointed out that the center courtyard of the former public school building was filled in to create the health care facility in 1991. When Rivington House was operational, the center portion was used by staff members, while rooms for the residents lined the perimeter of the building. The layout, he said, makes the building especially well-suited for some type of community facility, rather than for condominiums.

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The forum was led off by Melissa Aase, University Settlement’s executive director and one of the leaders of the campaign to return Rivington House to the community. In spite of the long odds, she said, “We believe there could be a path to getting this building back.”

“You know what was done to, not with, us by a small number of people without transparency,” said Aase, “and for the wrong reasons, for profit. The story of greed and profit and lies and deals leaves us righteously furious. Even though the legal path to undo it has not yet been revealed, we continue to raise the importance and the meaning of this loss and the depth of the underhandedness, because there still could be a way to save it.”

City Council member Margaret Chin and State Assemblywoman Yuh-Line Niou were in the audience on Sunday. In brief remarks, Chin said elected officials still have not received a response from the State Department of Health, months after asking why the local community wasn’t informed of Rivington House’s closure. “They still haven’t given us any kind of satisfactory answer,” said Chin.

She noted that the city administration has agreed to create senior housing, in part to replace Rivington House’s nursing home beds, on Pike Street. But Chin went on to say, “We need to continue to pressure the mayor, which I do constantly, every day. We’re not giving up on Rivington House. We want it back. I think there are ways to do it and we have to look at every way possible. We’ve got to keep the pressure on.”

Niou said she spoke with the mayor in the recent past about Rivington House.  “We had an explicit conversation about what happened,” said Niou. “I think they (the city administration) know that our community is very angry.”  She also discussed legislation being proposed along with State Sen. Daniel Squadron. “The Rivington Act” would require a public review process whenever a residential health facility is set for closure. There are now multiple Assembly sponsors and Niou is optimistic about the legislation’s prospects. Recently we were told that Squadron is using one of his three, “Motions for Committee Consideration, which will force the bill to be placed on the health panel’s agenda.

Some of those in attendance on Sunday wanted to know what they can do now to push for the return of Rivington House. People were encouraged to call the mayor and other elected officials to keep up the pressure. Organizers said they’re still considering their own legal case to force the developers to relinquish the building. Meanwhile, the Neighbors to Save Rivington House group is preparing a more deliberate visioning process to begin sometime over the summer. We’ll let you know when they have those details firmed up.