State Assemblyman Brian Kavanagh and Grand Street Settlement Executive Director Robert Cordero at a May 18 rally.
According to Grand Street Settlement, Masaryk Towers has rejected pleas to make accommodations for local residents impacted by the closure of the co-op’s Rivington Street gates.
As we first reported May 5, the large Mitchell Lama complex made the decision to restrict access due to insurance liability and safety concerns. The walkway is a convenient short cut for people walking between Columbia and Pitt streets. Grand Street Settlement operates youth and senior programs from its center at 80 Pitt St. Many of their program participants (including residents of the Baruch Houses) must now walk around to Houston or Delancey streets.
Leaders of the settlement house met with Masaryk Towers management, offering to expand Grand street’s insurance policy to alleviate the co-op board’s concerns. A rally was held this past Thursday to keep the pressure up, but it apparently had little effect. Grand Street Executive Director Robert Cordero received a letter from Masaryk Towers Board President Bernice McCallum today. Here it is:
The Masaryk Towers’ recent gate closure is one of many measures we have taken to ensure the safety and security of our residents. For many years, Masaryk has had serious problems with criminal activities, including the proliferation of illicit drug usage and distribution, alcohol and vandalism, largely attributable to non-residents. The quality of life has declined, with litter and garbage left by passersby, rowdy groups hanging out on the benches, in the halls and stairways, with beer cans, bottles and trash left everywhere.
Some of these problems were exacerbated several years ago when NYCHA removed benches from the adjacent Gompers Houses and Baruch Houses. Bikes, mopeds and electric bikes (especially in the past few years) speeding through, have terrorized Masaryk residents, particularly children, seniors and the infirm, and have caused injuries (many serious). People have walked through with leashed or unleashed dogs and in many cases, have not cleaned up after their pets have defecated on our walkways and grass.
Over the years, we have tried to deal with these problems in various ways, including posting signs and hiring additional security at great cost to us, but things have spiraled out of control. It should be noted that the portion of Rivington Street passing through Masaryk Towers was ceded by the City of New York to Masaryk when it was built fifty years ago (it was de-mapped and does not appear as a city street on official NYC maps).
While the idea of installing gates at either end of the walkway was discussed on and off during the last fifty years, it was first seriously discussed approximately twelve years ago. Through the years since then, objective conditions prevented us from closing the walkway to the public. However, in the recent past the situation has deteriorated to the point that we had no choice but to allow entry to Masaryk by residents and their guests only.
In the short time since the gates have been closed, these offensive activities cited above have virtually disappeared. Masaryk residents feel safer walking the grounds and entering their buildings. Late-night congregation on the benches has abated. The grounds are cleaner, residents are picking up trash that blows around and people feel more comfortable sitting on the benches. The final issue remains Masaryk’s attempts to limit our exposure to liability.
Numerous trip-and-fall claims by non-residents have resulted in costly lawsuits. Unfortunately, no amount of additional insurance can prevent the continued liability Masaryk would face with future incidents. While we understand that some of our neighbors will be inconvenienced and that it will take some time to acclimate to the closing, we trust that our neighbors will understand Masaryk’s decision. We are willing to work with interested parties to get Stanton Street (between Columbia Street and Pitt Street) reopened to pedestrian traffic.
This afternoon, leaders of Grand Street Settlement say they are planning their next steps. Today’s response from Masaryk Towers, they say, has only strengthened the settlement house’s resolve and they have no intention of hacking down. A petition has been signed by about 1,000 people. At last week’s rally, Cordero said, “This is not a rally against Masaryk Towers. We understand their rights. We are just asking for access for our seniors and children.” Cordero added, “We want to be good neighbors and we want to keep our community safe.”
Others spoke, as well, including Raul Ramos, a longtime resident of the Baruch Houses and a youth sports coach. “I have an uncle who lives in 72 Columbia,” said Ramos, “who has not been able to attend (Grand street’s senior program) for the past two weeks because he is in a walker, he can barely walk through the Rivington Street path.” Ramos added, “If we boycott (Masaryk Towers’) storefronts, they will have no choice but to open those gates for us, for the safe passage of the elderly and the children of this community.”
State Assemblyman Brian Kavanagh took a turn at the microphone, stating, “We’ve all (meaning elected officials) been asking basic questions of Masaryk Towers about why they think this is necessary and what is a better solution for this community than closing the gates, preventing people from moving directly from where they live to where they need to be every day.”
City Council candidate Jasmin Sanchez rallies at Masaryk Towers May 10.
At the podium, City Council candidate Carlina Rivera.
Jasmin Sanchez, a City Council candidate called the closure “cruel,” and told community members, “We stand with Grand Street Settlement to ensure that our seniors have daily access to the hot meals they need.” On May 10, she staged another rally outside Masaryk towers’ gates, threatening a boycott of the co-op’s commercial tenants. On Thursday, she told us that boycott would begin next month if Masaryk doesn’t relent.
Carlina Rivera, also a City Council candidate, said that several other Mitchell Lama developments in the immediate area maintain open walkways. “What we have here,,” she argued, “is an unbelievable example of miscommunication and mistrust, quite frankly, by Masaryk Towers… All we want is a pathway to get from a to b…. I hope people understand that we are on the right side right now of justice. This is about being able to walk in your own community.”
We have contacted Masaryk Towers’ general manager for more information. We’ll let you know if the co-op has any more to say on the topic.
Tensions appear to have lessoned somewhat in the past week between Masaryk Towers and at least some of its neighbors. As The Lo-Down first reported, the cooperative residential complex closed a walkway on Rivington Street May 5, angering the surrounding community.
Leaders of Grand Street Settlement were particularly unhappy. The large non-profit operates senior and youth programs from its headquarters just outside the gate near Pitt Street. In spite of promises to keep the organization apprised of longstanding plans to shut the gates for security and insurance reasons, there was almost no advance warning. The closure means program participants are forced to walk around to Delancey or Houston streets.
We were told today that Masaryk Towers and Grand Street Settlement are now talking. A Grand street spokesperson said, “We are in good faith negotiations with Masaryk Towers at this point, emphasizing access for Grand Street. Settlement participants and affected community members.”
The settlement house plans an “informational rally” tomorrow at 9:30 a.m. at the entrance of its building, 80 Pitt St. (Rivington). “The rally,” the spokesperson explained, “will serve to update the community on the negotiations and to encourage Masaryk Towers to provide as much access as possible to Grand Street Settlement participants and related family members and caregivers, and to be clear with the larger community on the status of the Rivington Street walkway.”
We have more this afternoon on the decision by Masaryk Towers to close the passageway on Rivington Street that cuts through the co-operative complex. As we first reported Friday, the move is not sitting well with many Masaryk neighbors, including Grand Street Settlement.
A short time ago, we spoke with Mitch Magidson, general manager of the subsidized housing project. In a statement, he said, “The gate closure is one of the many measures Masaryk has taken to ensure the safety and security of its residents; and while it will take some time getting used to, we trust that our neighbors will understand Masaryk’s decision.”
The Rivington Street walkway has always been a convenient way to travel between Columbia Street and Pitt Street. Robert Cordero, executive director of Grand Street Settlement, says his concerns about the closure go beyond convenience. The social service organization runs a large senior program from its headquarters at 80 Pitt St. (just to the west of the Rivington gate). Now senior citizens from the Baruch Houses on Columbia Street will have a more difficult time reaching the center.
This afternoon, Cordero told us he understands Masaryk’s decision, which was made due to security concerns and to curb lawsuits. But more than a year ago, Cordero said, he and City Council member Rosie Mendez were both assured by Masaryk that they’d be given plenty of advance warning before the closure. Instead, Cordero said, he was given less than 24 hours notice. “The (Masaryk) board obviously made a conscious decision not to inform the community,” said Cordero. After more than 40 years as neighbors with the settlement House, “I would think Masaryk would show more regard for this community.”
About 50 seniors attend Grand Street programs daily (including a subsidized lunch program). Around half of those using the settlement house’s senior center are Masaryk Towers residents. Cordero said he’s working to arrange for shuttle bus service for Lower East Side senior residents, but this service will be dependent on future City Council funding (the news fiscal year begins in July).
Magidson said all Masaryk residents were given key fobs and an intercom system is linked to each resident via telephone. A 24 hour security guard on Columbia Street is prepared to deal with any emergencies that come up. The board, said Magidson, deliberated for some time about ways to accommodate Grand Street’s seniors. Unfortunately, he explained, there’s no real way to make exceptions for them while keeping the walkway secure for Masaryk residents. “Our number one concern” he said, “is the safety of our residents.” He also said the risk of lawsuits had become so high that obtaining insurance for the co-op had become extremely difficult.
Grand Street Settlement has started a petition against the handling of the gate issue. It’s available in the lobby of 80 Pitt St. through this week.
UPDATE 4:49 p.m. Here’s more from City Council member Rosie Mendez, who has been dealing with the Masaryk gate issue since 2006. Years ago, Masaryk Towers received funding for complex-wide renovations, including sidewalk repairs. The Department of Housing Preservation and Development, Mendez said, encouraged building management to shut down the walkway as a way of controlling spiraling insurance costs. Mendez had serious concerns about closing the gates. After a series of meetings, she said, the board agreed to keep them open at specific (high traffic) times of the day. That was about a decade ago. Mendez said she received no advance warning about the closure last week. She reminded Board President Bernice McCallum about the longstanding agreement. McCallum, Mendez indicated, did not recall the specifics of that agreement and is now looking through board minutes. A meeting between Masaryk leadership and local elected officials is in the works. Mendez said she also wants to explore whether a passageway on Stanton Street can be reopened (it was obstructed by the expansion of a school basketball court a few years ago). The Council member indicated that Grand Street Settlement’s request for shuttle bus funding has gone through many changes. It’s wrapped up in a larger request for building renovations to the organization’s flagship building.
There have been some tense moments outside the Masaryk Towers apartment complex this afternoon. The cooperative today carried out a long-expected and controversial plan — closing gates on a de-mapped section of Rivington Street, between Columbia and Pitt streets. The closure cuts off a main passageway used by the neighborhood-at-large to travel throughout the community.
We’re told by people in the area, including District Leader Paul Newell, that the decision is already prompting a big reaction. Newell says the feedback from Masaryk residents is mixed, while sentiment from the larger community is resoundingly negative.
Months ago, Grand Street Settlement expressed serious concerns about the closure. The entrance of the non-profit organization’s senior center is located just beyond the gates, near Pitt Street. Executive Director Robert Cordero was promised by the co-op’s leadership that the community would be advised of the changes well in advance of the closure. There was almost no warning before the gates were shut today. Here’s part of a petition Grand Street Settlement is circulating:
This closure places undo burden on the 4,000+ children, youth, families, and seniors who visit our center (including those who reside in Masaryk Towers). We are especially worried about our seniors who live in Baruch Houses on the East River and have limited mobility. On May 4th, Grand St. Settlement received the following notice that the gates will be closed from Bernice McCallum, Chair of Masaryk Board of Directors: “This is an update regarding the closing of the gates. The Board of Masaryk Towers decided to close the gates. The gate closure is one of the many measures Masaryk has taken to ensure the safety and security of its residents; and while it will take some time getting used to, we trust that our neighbors will understand Masaryk’s decision. Thanks. “ Unfortunately, this is all of the information we have. We do not know when the gates will close. Grand St. Settlement’s Executive Director has been promised multiple times that Masaryk leadership will provide clear communication and coordination regarding the gates, and we are very disappointed that this was not the case.
The petition asks Masaryk Towers to provide access to seniors and children and to fully communicate with the community about its plans.
We have a call into Masaryk Towers’ management office. We’ll let you know when the co-op responds. In late 2015, Masaryk Board President Bernice McCallum told us that, when the gates close, “the walkway will be available to the surrounding residents at designed times.” The board, she said, decided to close the gates because there have been, “a considerable amount of trips and falls.” This, she indicated, put the cooperative “at risk for not getting insurance or paying at a higher rate.” McCallum added, “we would like to continue to be good neighbors and assist wherever possible.”
UPDATE 5/8/2017 See Masaryk Towers’ response here.
Students, parents and owners of a karate school, Beyond Martial Arts, gathered on Columbia Street yesterday afternoon to protest the organization’s eviction from a commercial space in the Masaryk Towers residential complex.
The city marshal posted a notice on the door at 60 Columbia St. last week, amid a long-running court battle between tenant and landlord. The two sides are due back in court at the end of this week. Meanwhile, dozens of kids are unable to participate in Beyond Martial Arts’ classes and after school programs.
The owner of the business, Phil Quinones, told us Monday that he owes back rent but that there are extenuating circumstances. Quinones said he’s been forced to pay Con Ed bills for the entire building, including Masaryk’s swimming pool, and to make other repairs that should have been the landlord’s responsibility. Mounting legal bills have prompted Beyond Martial Arts to start a crowdfunding campaign. There’s also a petition drive to show support for the small business.
Longtime Lower East Side resident Nancy Ortiz has two grandchildren enrolled in the after school programs. Beyond Martial Arts “has been a lifesaver,” she said. In a neighborhood with a dearth of quality after school activities, Ortiz explained, the school provides young kids with a structure and discipline. “They pick the children up at school, help them with their homework and just cater to a lot of the community’s needs.”
The manager of Masaryk Towers, Mitch Magidson, tells a different story. In a phone interview, he told us that Beyond Martial Arts owes the co-op money and it failed to provide services (the lease required the firm to provide free classes to Masaryk residents). As far as he’s concerned, Quinones was legally evicted. “It’s a done deal,” he said, adding that no new tenant is lined up to take the space.
Beyond Martial Arts has been at Masaryk Towers since 2013. The business was previously located on Attorney Street.
Phil Quinones addressed parents and other supporters at a Mondsy rally.
Masaryk’s board vice president Adeline Camacho and helper Marcus Liszkiewicz unload supplies for distribution.
On the 19th floor of Masaryk Towers, a six-buildng affordable-housing co-op on Columbia Street near the East River, one resident has been waiting out the storm’s aftermath alone in the dark and without insulin for her diabetes.
“I’ve never felt so helpless in my life,” said the woman, who gave her name only as Joan and said she has lived in the 1,110-unit complex since 1989. Her neighbors brought her some food, and she had water from the building’s supply for most of the week, but it cut off recently. She was unable to leave her apartment to get more medicine.
This morning, help for Joan and other home-bound residents of Masaryk Towers arrived in the form of a diverse band of volunteers and 120 military-style “meals-ready-to-eat.”
Masaryk Towers as seen from the M train, crossing the Williamsburg Bridge.
Masaryk Towers, a six-building affordable housing co-op, has endured years of financial turmoil and dissension. Now the Lower East Side complex faces another legal challenge. Earlier today we received a press release from two advocacy organizations announcing a lawsuit, on behalf of nearly 200 Masaryk residents, accusing the city of illegally approving carrying charge increases.
The lawsuit was filed in Manhattan Supreme Court against the Department of Housing Preservation and Development, which oversees the Mitchell Lama cooperative. It alleges that residents received an 11% increase in carrying charges in March of 2011, followed by an 18% increase 15 months later. The press release asserted that carrying charges cannot be increased within two years of a previous hike.
Various dignitaries braved the sweltering heat this afternoon to celebrate the beginning of a long awaited renovation project. Thanks to $8 million from the Lower Manhattan Development Corp. and the city, Masaryk Towers is about to get a major face lift.
The 1110 unit affordable housing complex on Columbia Street will be receiving facade repairs, improvements to sidewalks and parking lots, new playground equipment and new security booths. The plan also includes one particularly controversial addition to Masaryk: fencing that will prevent people from walking through the courtyard on Rivington Street.
Investigators say yesterday’s fire at Masaryk Towers was sparked by an electric space heater. The Post reports that the heater was too close to “combustible material or or near a bed.” The fire started in a 16th floor apartment at 89 Columbia Street, shortly after 11 a.m. The flames shot out the windows – and flames spread to the upper floors of the 21 story building.
Two women who lived in the apartment were treated for smoke inhalation. According to the Post, two dogs died in an 18th floor apartment. As we indicated yesterday, 10 residents were displaced by the fire. The Red Cross was helping them find temporary accommodations.
About 130 firefighters fought the blaze, which was brought under control in about an hour-and-a-half.
Six Lowa posted video on YouTube showing the flames coming out of the 16th floor window, lapping the building exterior and spreading to floors 17-19.
Here’s an update on this morning’s fire at Masaryk Towers. First of all, GammaBlog has video of the flames shooting out of the windows shortly after the blaze broke out today. Also, the Red Cross is on the scene, helping people displaced by the fire. It looks like four apartments were destroyed.
We’re just back from the three-alarm fire at Masaryk Towers. More than 100 firefighters responded to the building on Columbia Street. We’re told the blaze, which started on the 16th floor, is now out. Red Cross staff are on the scene (or soon will be) to assist any displaced families. We have not heard of any injuries as of yet. Stay tuned for updates.