The editorial boards of both the Daily News and the New York Post this week slammed the de Blasio administration, calling its mishandling of the Rivington House situation a “scandal.” Today the Post wrote, “whether it was shear incompetence” or “under-the-table cronyism” that allowed a community asset to slip into the hands of luxury developers, “someone must be held accountable.” As we previously reported, Community Board 3 approved a resolution two months ago, strongly criticizing the decision to lift a deed restriction on the building at 45 Rivington St. This afternoon, we have more proof that this resolution went directly to the mayor.
It’s an important point because the mayor has said he only recently learned of the bungled real estate transaction at the former nursing home. His newly appointed commissioner of the Department of Administrative Services (DCAS), Lisette Camillo, has said she found out about it, as Politico New York reported, “during communication with a community board on March 1.” The resolution was sent to the mayor, Camillo and to the mayor’s Office of Community Affairs on Jan. 27. It called on the city to “disclose information” regarding the lifting of the deed restriction and to reverse the decision.
This was not the first time the de Blasio administration was alerted about the situation. Local activists reached out to community affairs liaison Tommy Lin on Dec. 1. Lin responded via email on Dec. 9 that he was “looking into the matter.” Also, The Lo-Down began asking questions of DCAS about the deed change on Dec. 18. But the letter shows that the community board made official and specific requests of the administration weeks before NYC Comptroller Scott Stringer launched an investigation of the matter.
In related news, Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer and City Council member Margaret Chin sent a letter to DCAS Commissioner Camillo yesterday, asking for copies of all documents that were released to Stringer. The comptroller obtained through a subpoena.
One document of particular interest is an email referenced by the Wall Street Journal in a March 22 story:
Joel Landau, an Allure executive who signed the city’s deed modification, wrote in an October 2014 email to a city official that he planned to keep the building a nursing home, but a for-profit facility, according to records released by the city. In the email, Mr. Landau asked the city to help him, citing the community board’s support to keep the facility a nursing home.
Who was the “city official” and why didn’t DCAS take what seems like an obvious precaution — memorializing Landeau’s commitment with an actual legal contract? Those are two questions that must be addressed during the investigation.
One other interesting note regarding this story. Shortly after news broke in the summer of 2014 that Rivington House would be closing, Friends of the Lower East Side (a preservation group) launched efforts to protect the former school building.
According to one of the organization’s leaders, Joyce Mendelsohn, a ‘request for evaluation” was submitted to the city’s Landmarks Preservation Commission. The group collected letters of support and met with Council member Chin. The request was rejected by the Landmarks Commission on Dec. 22, 2014.
China Vanke Co., Slate Property Group and Adam America Real Estate purchased the building for $116 million. In a press release, the developers gave every indication they intend to keep the historic building, rather than demolishing it for new construction. “We’re confident that the flexibility of the existing structure, which has been transformed in the past to accommodate diverse tenants, allows for us to repurpose a historic and well-known building into a desirable residential destination,” said Dvir Cohen Hoshen, founder of Adam America. But since the Landmarks Commission declined to act, the developers are free to handle the renovations however they see fit.
Here’s a summary from Friends of the Lower East Side of their request:
On August 18, 2014, Friends of the Lower East Side submitted an urgent Request for Evaluation to the NYC Landmarks Preservation Commission to calendar, without delay, the former Public School 20, designed by Charles B. J. Snyder, renowned architect and Superintendent of New York City School Buildings from 1891 to 1923. The building was purchased from the city in 1993, converted into a nursing home for AIDS patients and renamed Rivington House. According to VillageCare, the non-profit organization that operates the facility, it is slated to close in November, 2014. The historic structure, across from Sara D. Roosevelt Park, commands the full block front on the south side of Rivington Street from Eldridge to Forsyth Streets. Landmark designation will ensure that a reuse will be sensitive to the significant architectural features of the building. Without such protection, it is a prime location for a teardown development.
P.S. 20 opened in 1899 when the Lower East Side was a neighborhood of poor immigrant families speaking many different languages living in crowded, dark and decaying tenements. In contrast, the public schools designed by C. B. J. Snyder offered a rigorous education in classrooms that maximized natural light, fresh air and cross ventilation. The fifth story of P.S. 20 contained a library, reading room, separate gyms for girls and boys and manual training rooms for carpentry, drafting and modeling. The rooftop playground offered a large space for a variety of open-air activities, far above the congested and dirty streets below.
In this healthful and stimulating environment, dedicated teachers encouraged children to seize the opportunity to rise above deprivation and become creative and productive adults. This was especially true of P.S. 20 whose student body reads like a Whose Who in America. Neighborhood alumni include composer George Gershwin, four-term U.S. Senator Jacob Javits, journalist and author Harry Golden, actors Edward G. Robinson and Paul Muni, and lyricist Irving Caesar.
Snyder’s 1898-99 Renaissance Revival style building exemplifies the high level of sophistication the city invested in its civic architecture. The five story symmetrical façade of the brick and terra cotta building is organized into five bays with two slightly recessed bays flanking a central bay. The first floor entrance in the central bay is marked by three arched openings with molded surrounds and supported by square piers with recessed panels. The entrance is flanked by rectangular window openings with flared terra cotta lintels and projecting keystones. The first floor of the central bay is further articulated by projecting horizontal bands of stone suggesting rustication. Flanking the entrance are two large, highly detailed terra cotta roundels in high relief. The east roundel is a representation of the seal of the City of New York. The west roundel has the incised word, “Excelsior” and includes numerous symbols appropriate for a school building including an eagle with scales of justice suspended from its beak, a lyre, a book, a globe, a lamp of knowledge, an artist’s palette with brushes and others symbols.
Known for his concern for the health of children, the architect’s innovative plans that brought more air and light into classrooms is evident in the treatment of the fenestration. The second floor of the central bay has large tripartite window openings flanked by single windows with flared terra cotta lintels and projecting keystones. The fourth floor is distinguished by large tripartite arched window openings with pilasters. The fifth floor is ornamented by large terra cotta plaques with detailed foliate motifs between the window bays. The Eldridge and Forsyth Street facades exhibit similar architectural treatments and very large window openings with molded surrounds.
Since 2008, when the National Trust for Historic Preservation placed the Lower East Side on its list of America’s 11 Most Endangered Historic Places, rampant development continues to obliterate the special character of the neighborhood. With the imminent closing of Rivington House, the threat has now become quite real of losing another piece of its architectural and cultural history. Landmark designation of Rivington House offers the only secure path towards ensuring that this significant building can survive as a resource in the community and a potent symbol of the vibrant immigrant legacy of the Lower East Side.