Mayor de Blasio bristled at a Lower East Side town hall meeting last night when the inevitable question came about his administration’s handling of Rivington House. The city’s decision to lift deed restrictions on the former nursing home cleared the way for the building’s luxury condo conversion. It also set off one of the biggest controversies of his first term in office. At the public forum, the mayor continued to insist that nothing can be done to wrest the building away from the developers, who paid $116 million for the historic former schoolhouse. City Council member Margaret Chin urged de Blasio to use his influence to persuade the property owners to do right by the community.
Andrew Knox, a local resident active with the group, Neighbors to Save Rivington House, asked whether the building at 45 Rivington St. could be taken back through eminent domain or through some other method. He said the neighborhood can ill-afford to lose another healthcare facility, does not need another luxury condo building and he argued, “The administration should rectify its mistake.”
The mayor began to answer the question, saying, “As you know, that project right now is on hold because of the ongoing investigations.” He was heckled from the audience while trying to explain that the developers had been granted a work permit recently to perform “exploratory work” in the building. Speaking over the hecklers, he interjected, “Excuse me! I’m telling you the facts from the Buildings Commissioner… Guys, you can scream all you want but we’re here to tell you what we know.”
The prickly mayor, apparently weary of multiple investigations and inquiries from reporters, added, “This one we’ve been over so many times but I’ll go over it again.”
“This was a mistake,” he explained. “It was ridiculous. I’ve said it a thousand times.” The mayor highlighted the changes his administration made in the aftermath of the Rivington House fiasco, which include new rules to ensure future deed changes are properly handled. De Blasio said city lawyers have not been able to find any legal loophole to reverse the sale.
“What the City of New York has said,” de Blasio added, is that, “we will put in facilities for senior affordable housing, additional, into the community and for additional nursing home capacity of 200 beds or more… to compensate for what happened here, because it wasn’t right.”
At a City Council oversight hearing held this past September, administration officials announced that more than 100 affordable apartments for seniors and a health care facility would be built at 30 Pike St. A Request for Proposals (RFP) is supposed to go out this year, but neither local elected officials nor the community board have received any updated information about the timetable for the RFP. They were also surprised to hear from the mayor last night that the number of beds could exceed 200 and that “additional nursing home capacity” is envisioned. We have contacted the Department of Housing Preservation and Development for clarification, but have not received a response just yet.
During the town hall, the administration addressed concerns that the developers are going beyond what’s allowed in their permit for exploratory work. Buildings Commissioner Rick Chandler said, “We did lift the stop work order to allow minor demolition to do exploratory work on the structure, within the property, because we have no legal grounds to deny them that request.”
“Say where we are now,” de Blasio impatiently urged his commissioner. Chandler responded, “Where we are now is that we put the property back on hold. We will not allow anything to happen until there’s a thorough investigation as to what they’re planning to do as we move forward.” The mayor once again chimed in, seemingly contradicting his department head, “There are several agencies still investigating and that hold will continue while those investigations continue.” Council member Chin then added, “Commissioner, we heard from a neighbor this morning that they were in there drilling, so I urge your agency to keep an eye on them, because they’re not following the rules.”
Chin also addressed the bigger picture. “Mr. Mayor,” she said, “you heard from the community. We’re not giving up on Rivington House. We have to find a way.” De Blasio once again insisted that the city is out of legal options. He also mentioned that his administration is distancing itself from the embattled owners of Rivington House. “The companies involved,” he said, “we have found other ways to separate from dealing with because we believe what happened was not right. It’s been well reported that we canceled some other arrangements with them.” One of the developers, Slate Property Group, was forced to drop out of a project at the Bedford-Union Armory last summer.
As the back-and-forth continued, Council member Chin floated another idea. “Maybe you can invite the people who purchased that building,” she suggested, “(to) come in and talk with us and see if we can build a model, 21st Century nursing facility for our seniors, with special needs.” Chin suggested that another Rivington House owner, China Vanke, could be a potential partner. “That company from China,” said Chin, “I think they want to do the right thing. If the mayor reaches out to them, they might want to come in and talk to you.”
De Blasio responded, “I want to honestly not get people’s hopes up. I do not think these are compassionate folks seeking to change the world, make it a better place. But I have no problem offering to them that they could have a much better relationship with the community and the administration if they came in and considered a different outcome.”
“We could create a wonderful project,” said Chin. “You’ll follow up, Mayor?”
The mayor, not so enthusiastically, replied, “Yes, of course.”
As The Lo-Down first reported May 30, the Department of Buildings has allowed the owners of the Rivington House building to perform “exploratory work” for future renovations. A stop work order had been in place since April of 2016 at the former nursing home, where one of the biggest scandals of the de Blasio administration has played out. Now — on the same day Mayor de Blasio heads to the Lower East Side for a town hall meeting — work crews are on site to begin their explorations.
Activists with Neighbors to Save Rivington House have been on high alert since the Buildings Department approved the work permit. This morning, we received the photos you see here from Tessa Huxley, who lives next door to Rivington House. A truck from “Aquifer Drilling & Testing” arrived a short time ago. She reported hearing the sounds of jackhammers inside and witnessed workers taking soil samples.
The permit allows for the, “miscellaneous removal of areas of flooring, walls and ceiling finishes throughout the existing building in order to expose the existing structure and masonry elements… for future renovations.” In a June 6 letter to the mayor, local residents wrote, “We believe that this (work) could well do permanent damage to the property as well as foreclose options that may yet result from outstanding investigations.”
The city lifted deed restrictions on the Rivington House facility, clearing the way for Slate Property Group, Adam America Real Estate and China Vanke to purchase the building for $116 million. A luxury condo conversion is planned. The mayor has blasted the developers but insisted the city has no legal means of getting the building back for the community. The state attorney general has been investigating the matter for many months.
Mayor de Blasio has said repeatedly he does not believe the city has a legal case to wrest control of Rivington House from luxury condo developers. While a “stop work order” has been in place on the former nursing home building since April of 2016, the Department of Buildings recently gave the owners, led by Slate Property Group, permission to perform some exploratory work inside the converted schoolhouse.
City officials lifted deed restrictions at 45 Rivington St., just before the Allure Group sold the property to Slate, Adam America Real Estate and China Vanke for $116 million. Rivington House became one of the biggest scandals confronted by the de Blasio administration, resulting in many investigations but few tangible results for the local community.
Earlier this month, on May 16, the Buildings Department (DOB) approved an application, allowing for the, “miscellaneous removal of areas of flooring, walls and ceiling finishes throughout the existing building in order to expose the existing structure and masonry elements… for future renovations.” The owner representative listed on the application is Martin Nussbaum of Slate Property Group. The applicant or record was John Cetra of CetraRuddy Architecture.
The other day, we asked a DOB press representative if the permit allows the owners to begin their luxury condo conversion. A spokesperson, Joe Soldevere, said the approved application does not allow any renovation work to take place. It only permits them to “examine and assess structural elements of the building,” he said.
Separately, the office of State Assemblywoman Yuh-Line Niou contacted the mayor’s office about Rivington House. A representative for Niou was told that last year’s stop work order remains in effect and that anyone who sees construction work taking place within the building should alert authorities.
A not-for-profit group, MFY Legal Services, has filed a lawsuit to obtain information from the State Health Department about the closure of Rivington House and of another nursing home in Brooklyn.
State regulations require nursing home operators to notify the health department and to file a closure report 90 days in advance of shutting the doors of any facility. That didn’t happen after the Allure Group sold the former Lower East Side nursing home to luxury condo developers.
The legal aid organization filed a Freedom of Information Law Request (FOIL) with the state more than a year ago for the closure report and related documents. The request and an appeal were denied. MFY says in a press release out today that the health department stalled for seven months.
“The review process for nursing home closures is supposed to protect vulnerable residents, but the Allure Group emptied its facilities quietly before flipping the properties to luxury developers,” said Daniel A. Ross, a staff attorney at MFY. “We want to find out why the DOH provided so little oversight.”
“We requested these documents to hold the DOH accountable for enforcing its own regulations and protecting the rights of nursing home residents,” said Kevin M. Cremin, Director of Litigation for Disability and Aging Rights at MFY. “What does the DOH have to hide?”
“Closing Rivington House had a disastrous impact on vulnerable, disabled, poor and long-time residents of color, their families, and loved ones,” said K Webster of the local advocacy group, Neighbors to Save Rivington House.“When the community first learned the site’s stewards wanted to sell it for profit, the community fought back to ensure it was kept for the people who needed it most. We are still waiting for answers as to how our state and city governments allowed this to happen on their watch.”
Mayor de Blasio has said nothing can be done to reverse a decision made by his administration to lift deed restrictions at Rivington House, which cleared the way for the luxury condo conversion. The health department has said it was not notified before the Lower East Side center closed. A closure report was approved after the fact, in February of last year.
UPDATE 5/10/2017 Here’s a statement from the Department of Health:
One of our most important priorities is ensuring that vulnerable New Yorkers have access to the vital services they need. As with all facilities we license, the department works to ensure strict oversight and quality of care at these facilities. The Department of Health plays no role in approving the transfer of real estate and does not comment on pending litigation.
Sen. Squadron at Rivington House in the spring of 2016.
State Sen. Daniel Squadron did not get very far yesterday with his proposal to prevent Rivington House-like disasters from striking other communities. The Republican head of the Senate Health committee rejected, at least for now, his legislation to make nursing home closures more transparent.
Squadron first announced his “Rivington Act” last September. At the time, he said the legislation would require the State Department of Health to “ensure local community needs can adequately be met before approving any closure.” The bill would require the state to produce a public closure report, to reject any closure plan if community health needs cannot be met and to consider recommendations from local stakeholders. Rivington House was, of course, sold to luxury condo developers after the de Blasio administration lifted deed restrictions.
In a very brief hearing yesterday, Sen. Kemp Hannon, chair of the health committee, said of the bill, “I don’t think it’s anywhere near shape to possibly become law… I would recommend a ‘no vote,’ but if Senator Squadron is going to pursue (the legislation), and he’s not a shy one about pursuing, you may see this bill again.” Hannon did not spell out any of his specific concerns. The committee voted down the measure 11-5.
In a statement after the hearing, Squadron said:
The Rivington Act helps ensure community voice and community health, but today the Health Committee chose to disregard both… (The legislation) is based on a simple concept — communities should have a voice in healthcare in the community. That didn’t happen at Rivington House, and unfortunately, was blocked by the Senate Majority today. The Chair committed to taking up this issue this session — I stand ready to work with him on his concerns and ensure Senate action this year.
Assemblywoman Yuh-Line Niou, who has partnered with Squadron to push the bill, said,
It is appalling that Republicans in the Senate Health Committee put partisan politics ahead of transparency and the need for local community involvement when considering the closure of nursing homes… As the main Assembly sponsor for the Rivington Act, I vow to continue pushing to shed light around nursing home closures and work to ensure that community input is incorporated into this important decision making process. Communities across New York State were short-changed by the Senate committee’s decision today to postpone a decision on this bill, particularly the Lower East Side in my district, but I encourage everyone to stay involved and continue pushing for the Rivington Act.
Meliisa Aase, executive director of University Settlement, added:
It is important for New Yorkers to learn every possible lesson from the devastating loss of Rivington House… In our community there is now only one skilled, residential nursing facilities left, with a five year waiting list. Had the impending deed restriction removals, evacuation of patients, and sale of Rivington House for luxury housing development been transparent to our community, we would have clearly raised our voices in opposition and demonstrated the dire need for the full and affordable continuum of care for the elderly, ill, or disabled members of our community. We won’t stop fighting for the return of Rivington House, and in the meantime we are grateful to Senator Squadron and Assembly Member Niou for their tireless pursuit of remedies and protections for the future.
Aase is one of the leaders of a local coalition, Neighbors to Save Rivington House, which has been pushing for the return of the health care facility to the Lower East Side community. Mayor de Blasio has said there is no legal means of making that happen. Sen. Squadron has challenged the mayor to explain more fully why the city could not pursue legal action against the former or current owners of the building.
Sen. Squadron attended a media event outside Rivington House in the spring of 2016.
There will be a vote in Albany tomorrow on State Sen. Daniel Squadron’s legislation aimed at preventing Rivington House-like debacles in other communities.
The Senate Health Committee will take up the “Rivington Act,” which would require the state to produce a public closure report when any nursing home is threatened, to reject any closure plan if community health needs cannot be met and to consider recommendations from local stakeholders.
Rivington House was, of course, stripped of its restrictive deed, closed and then sold for $116 million to luxury condo developers. City and state officials failed to provide the public with information about the closure.
The legislation is co-sponsored by local Assemblywoman Yuh-Line Niou. Senator Squadron used a procedural maneuver to force a vote. You can watch the hearing live tomorrow at noon by following this link. The full text of the legislation is available here.
Ricardo Morales, the former city official who lifted deed restrictions at Rivington House, is talking about his firing.
The deputy commissioner at the Department of Citywide Administrative Services (DCAS) was terminated in late February, on the same day Mayor de Blasio was being grilled by federal prosecutors about his campaign finance practices. Morales and his attorney are speaking out in the New York Post.
Morales is not going quietly:
He’s Mayor de Blasio’s fall guy. The only city official fired in the just-concluded federal and state probes into de Blasio says he was axed for one reason — to let other civil servants know that they had better keep their traps shut, or else. “It was a message to any other deputy commissioner or assistant commissioner that if you step out of line, there will be retribution . . . They made sure I got hit,” said Ricardo Morales, a former deputy commissioner with the Department of Citywide Administrative Services.
In November of 2015, Morales signed off on the deed changes, which set the stage for the luxury condo conversion of the former nursing home. Multiple investigations later found that other higher ranking officials in the de Blasio administration were well aware of the situation but failed to act in time to save the longtime community facility. Federal and state prosecutors said last week that their investigations of the mayor’s fundraising were being dropped.
More from the Post:
Staffers with the city Department of Investigation and city comptroller quizzed Morales last March and April about two real-estate transactions that allegedly benefited developers and lobbyists who gave donations to the mayor’s campaign and the mayor’s nonprofit, the Campaign for One New York. Morales also received a federal subpoena in May… “They asked me to answer questions honestly about transactions I had managed and I did,” Morales said. After Morales talked to government investigators, he and his lawyer, Guy Oksenhendler, met with the mayor’s lawyers at Carter Ledyard & Milburn. De Blasio’s lawyers knew Morales had been subpoenaed by the feds. They peppered him with questions to strengthen their defense of the mayor. “They asked the same questions any interested prosecutor would have wanted to know the answers to,” Oksenhendler said.
City officials have said Morales’ dismissal was unrelated to Rivington House. Lisette Camilo, commissioner of the Department of Citywide Administrative Services, told a City Council committee that she could not discuss the personnel matter because it is, “very sensitive.”
While de Blasio has said he was angered by the handling of Rivington House and convinced that the developers duped the city, no one in his administration (at least not officially) has been held accountable. The mayor has also said city lawyers do not believe they have grounds to sue the previous and current owners of the building.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Here’s a reminder about an event coming up on Sunday. It’s a forum to discuss what’s next for Rivington House. Here’s a section of the press release from Neighbors to Save Rivington House, the organization sponsoring the forum:
Neighbors to Save Rivington House will hold a forum to which the public is cordially invited on Sunday afternoon, March 12th from 2 to 4 at Speyer Hall on the second floor of University Settlement, 184 Eldridge Street, New York City. This meeting will discuss the possible future of Rivington House, a former public school and health care facility currently threatened with conversion into market rate/luxury private housing. At the meeting the coalition will assume the return of Rivington House to the community as the protected care facility it was intended to be, and will look at the future of care in general, needed here and elsewhere.
A community group, Friends of Elizabeth Street Garden, has scheduled a rally at Rivington House facility this morning to, as their Facebook invite explains, “Wake up Mayor Bill de Blasio and Council member Margaret Chin” to the lost opportunity for affordable housing at the former nursing home.
This event is not sitting well with other local activists, who have been advocating for the return of Rivington House for many months. Here’s an open letter from Melissa Aase, executive director of University Settlement. She has taken a leading role in the organization, Neighbors to Save Rivington House.
Dear Elizabeth Street Garden Association leaders and members,
I am the Executive Director of University Settlement, your 131-year-old neighbor to the east.
University Settlement, America’s first social settlement house, opened its doors on the Lower East Side of Manhattan in 1886, and has since grown to serve 43,000 New Yorkers annually. Through direct services, innovative program models, and active advocacy, we are committed to developing progressive solutions to alleviate poverty and inequality, serving as an anchor in the low-income and immigrant communities where we work. Our holistic programs span across early childhood care and education, youth development, literacy, theater and visual arts, senior services, mental health, and housing services.
Our headquarters has been on Eldridge and Rivington since our beautiful building was built in 1898.
The original PS 20 building across the street from us was built in 1899, and so as you can imagine, it has been a “neighbor institution” for 118 years, including the long and important struggle to transform it into “Rivington House” over 25 years ago.
University Settlement has been deeply involved in looking for “a way out” during the huge controversy and disappointing revelations of the last few years as Rivington House scaled back, then sold, then closed, then was lost entirely (but we hope not irrevocably) to luxury housing developers.
The loss of this skilled nursing facility for 250 people (and the $70 million in public funds to create it) — especially considering its symbiosis with the surrounding neighbors, amenities, services and partners — cannot be understated. It is devastating, and all of us should certainly raise our voices in protest of this loss, and bring to bear our best thinking and resources to return this desperately needed facility for our community’s most vulnerable people. We all have elders and friends who do now, or will in the future, need “care.”
Those of us working to get Rivington House returned to the community, even at long odds, weren’t informed, asked or considered by the ESG Coalition in your plan to use Rivington House as a backdrop or prop for your efforts on your Elizabeth Street Garden advocacy agenda, the “Wake Up” rally scheduled for (this) morning, March 3rd.
Now that we know, we are asking that you reconsider and cancel this event. Here are a few reasons:
Not only does this come across as using the Rivington House situation for your situation, which seems disrespectful to our years of work, our pain, and the people we are or who we represent, but it is also is confusing to those we are hoping to galvanize to save Rivington House. The two agendas are different agendas, and Rivington House shouldn’t be used as a part of the separate discussion about the Elizabeth Street Garden (or even of senior housing, since the conversion of this particular building to housing would be astronomical in cost, and still doesn’t return what we need most, a skilled nursing facility).
As we are ramping up to host a public event about Rivington House and the issues of “care” on March 12th, we are now dealing with questions from the community about the rally, and it is diverting us from precious organizing time, and it diverts from our demand of returning Rivington House.
The proposed garden rally also appears in part to target Margaret Chin, who on the issue of Rivington House and many other issues of care, seniors, and our desperate affordable housing shortage, has been a good advocate for the most vulnerable members of the community we are concerned about. So we also wouldn’t be supportive of a rally targeting her that is staged outside of Rivington House, since again, it confuses the matter about her positions and actions.
We hope you will reconsider your plans and cancel or move the rally on March 3rd, and disconnect it entirely from Rivington House. It would be excellent if you could make this clear to your whole group. We ask that you do this out of respect for our organizing work and long-time ties to this block and building; out of respect for our strategies, history and knowledge of the issues surrounding Rivington House in particular; and out of respect for the highly vulnerable people and community needs we are representing. We ask out of common neighborliness.
We also hope you will join us in several community projects and activities that may be “intersectional” and of interest to the members of the garden coalition, since we are such close neighbors – such as saving Rivington House, reclaiming an under-utilized Parks Department building in SDR Park at Stanton Street, supporting the M’Finda Kalunga Garden and the SDR Park Coalition, saving and improving the public housing in our community, preventing evictions and harassment of low income tenants on Elizabeth Street and throughout the community, contributing to the NYC Cultural Plan through our Performance Project at University Settlement, increasing access to safety and services for immigrants who are now so much more at risk, or many, many additional and necessary fights that are happening right now.
UPDATE 11:59 a.m. Here’s a response from Menashe Shapiro, a consultant working with Allan Reiver, the Elizabeth Street Garden leaseholder:
While we support any and all efforts to save Rivington House, it currently stands as a symbol of non-transparent and backroom politics. Councilmember Chin employed the same non-transparent methodology to ram her proposal to destroy the Elizabeth Street Garden through the Seward Park Rezoning and to get HPD to solicit bids. Councilmember Chin’s hypocrisy on the matter of transparency is striking. The authors of this letter have received – for their organizations – over $50,000 in direct grants from Councilmember Chin since 2011 and over $1 million from the Council at large at the behest of Councilmember Chin during the same period of time. One can easily surmise that this letter is nothing more than an attempt to protect their financial patron, Margaret Chin, from the bad press and the embarrassment of another constituent protest. This letter was brought and paid for Margaret Chin, nothing more.
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Lower East Side activists have not given up on their campaign to win Rivington House back for the Lower East Side community.
A local group, Neighbors to Save Rivington House, announced today that its will be hosting two visioning events to discuss the future of the former nursing home for AIDS patients. They are undeterred by repeated statements from Mayor de Blasio that the the sale of the building to luxury condo developers can likely not be reversed. His administration’s decision to lift deed restrictions on the longtime community facility touched off one of the biggest scandals of the mayor’s administration.
Here’s what Neighbors to Save Rivington House is planning:
What’s Next for Rivington House: Creating New Ideas for Community Care
The goals of the visioning sessions are:
1) look at an array of possible futures by offering concrete information and innovative ideas for addressing the care needs (health, respite, supportive housing, disability, etc.) of our community.
2) ask local residents to join with us to consider how best to meet those needs.
How do we create facilities for care that people can call home (or find temporary help) while keeping them in the center of our community?
Our position is and has been that Rivington House must be returned to public use for the benefit of our Lower East Side community. We will begin with a two-hour panel discussion, hosted by University Settlement House, where several experts (architecture, public health, care giving, disability rights) will give us a vocabulary of ideas to think about in preparation for a charrette later in the spring.”
Sunday March 12th from 2-4 p.m. at University Settlement’s Speyer Hall, 184 Eldridge St. (between Rivington and Delancey Streets)
Speakers will include Debra Jeffreys-Glass and Rosemary Shields, telling “real stories” from the community; architect Andrew Knox, who will, “illuminate the interior” of the Rivington House building; and Ruth Finklestein, Ashley Stevens and Susan Scheer discussing the “continuum of community care.”
During a budget hearing in Albany yesterday, State Sen. Daniel Squadron questioned Mayor de Blasio about the Rivington House fiasco. Specifically, the senator wanted to know why no one on the mayor’s team had responded to a letter he sent in December calling on the city to sue Rivington House’s former owner.
The mayor has personally blamed the real estate developers at the center of the scandal — accusing them of hoodwinking the city administration into dropping deed restrictions on the former nursing home. Based on the mayor’s public statements, Squadron said the former owner, the Allure Group, should be sued under the False Claims Act.
Mayor de Blasio was asked about the senator’s letter during a news conference in late December. He shrugged off the request from the local lawmaker, saying, “It’s easy to put out a press release.” The jab did not sit well with Sen. Squadron.
“Unfortunately, since I’ve sent the letter on the False Claims Act,” said Squadron, “the only comment and response from the administration, and this is unfortunately sometimes a pattern, was at a press conference where you dismissed the entire thing out of hand as a simple press release.” He went on to ask why the city isn’t pursuing legal action.
Referring to his dismissive remarks on Dec. 29, de Blasio told the senator, “I may have been speaking out of frustration. I didn’t mean to make it too personal. I apologize for that.”
As for the mayor’s many public statements assigning blame to the developers, he said they were, “based on a very heartfelt anger at what the developer did and a sense that the people were cheated.”
“I would love nothing more than to find a way to recoup what has been done to the community,” added the mayor. “But respectfully, long before your letter, I had asked this question probably two dozen times of my corporation counsel (and they could not find a legal avenue to pursue). “We’re not going to bring an action that we believe is susceptible to immediate defeat. So if you know something we don’t know (and)… you’ve found a path we haven’t, I will thank you publicly and we will implement it.”
In response, Squadron said, “Frankly it leads to questions when (officials) at the highest levels of the administration (are) accusing (the developers) of misleading (the city). “To just be told, ‘we agree but we can’t,’ is not sufficient for a community that is still smarting from the loss of a healthcare facility.”
The mayor agreed to set up a meeting between the city’s top lawyers and Squadron. He also pointed to new city laws, sponsored by local City Council member Margaret Chin, meant to prevent future Rivington House-like fiascos. And he said, “We committed to a nursing facility as part of our Health & Hospitals system that will help low-income seniors in your community as one way to give back some of what was lost. That is a good faith effort.”
Squadron said of the new project, located at 30 Pike St., “We appreciate the moderate investment to replace what happened at Rivington House from the city, but it is moderate. It does not replace Rivington House.”
You can see the full exchange from yesterday’s hearing below. The section having to do with Rivington House starts after about one minute.
Sen. Squadron attended a media event outside Rivington House earlier this year.
We made mention this morning of a somewhat vague report in the Daily News noting that State Sen. Daniel Squadron is calling on the city to sue the Allure Group in connection with the Rivington House debacle. The senator is now out with a fuller explanation.
The Allure Group, of course, sold the former nursing home to luxury condo developers for $116 million after the city lifted deed restrictions on the property. Mayor de Blasio has said the city was misled by Allure Group executives about their intentions.
Squadron has made available a letter he wrote to New York State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman and Zachary Carter, New York City’s corporation counsel. In the letter, dated yesterday, Squadron said, “I write to ask you to investigate the events surrounding the sale of Rivington House for possible violations of the False Claims Act, at the State and City levels.”
The False Claims Act gives city and state officials the ability to file civil enforcement actions against parties that have defrauded the government. The act provides for the rcovery of damages, penalties and attorneys’ fees from those found to have made false claims, including against any entity that, “knowingly conceals or knowingly and improperly avoids or decreases an obligation to pay or transmit money or property to the state or a local government, or conspires to do the same” or “knowingly makes, uses. or causes to be made or used, a false record or statement to conceal, avoid, or decrease, directly or indirectly, an obligation to pay or transmit money or property to the city.”
Squadron wants city and state lawyers to look at whether false claims were, in fact, made by representatives of the Allure Group. He is also asking them to look into whether Allure Group concealed the May 2015 agreement to sell the property. Allure paid $16 million to lift the deed restrictions. If the sales price had been known, the firm would have been required to pay more to the city.
In a statement, Squadron said, “The closure of Rivington House… stunned the community and highlighted major flaws in the process that governs deed restrictions… The role of government is to protect the public interest and to be transparent; but that role is undermined if government is misled, as may have been the case at Rivington House. But, it is also vital that we hold those who violate the public trust accountable.”
Schneiderman has been investigating the Rivington House matter but hasn’t indicated whether criminal charges will be filed.
Photo courtesy: Council member Margaret Chin.
In other Rivington House-related news, Mayor de Blasio signed legislation today sponsored by City Council member Margaret Chin and Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer meant to reform the way the city deals with deed restrictions.
The legislation requires the city to establish an online database of properties with deed restrictions, to notify local elected officials and community boards of any request to remove deed restrictions and to set up more stringent procedures for evaluating those requests. The new law also requires the mayor to personally sign off on all deed removal requests.
In a statement, Chin said:
Our city is not a playground for powerful real estate interests. Every transaction that involves properties set aside for the good of the people of our City, such as Rivington House, needs to be subject to the greatest amount of public input, transparency, and accountability as possible. Our legislation… achieves that goal. Today we are united with a simple message: No more Rivington Houses, not on this Mayor’s, or any other Mayor’s watch. I am proud to join Borough President Brewer and Speaker Mark-Viverito in solidarity with the Lower East Side residents who woke up one morning to find a cherished, community asset taken from them.
The mayor’s office this past fall released new guidelines for dealing with deed changes and amended those guidelines following a City Council hearing on the Chin/Brewer bill.
Here was the scene in front of the former Rivington House nursing facility Sunday morning. In this photo from Jon W., you can tell that some people have now taken up residence in the vestibule of the infamous Lower East Side property.
Residents who live nearby tell us they’ve been there for some time and that the conditions on the sidewalk alongside the building, 45 Rivington St., have improved of late. At least one man sleeping on Rivington House’s doorstep has been sweeping the sidewalk on a regular basis. There’s a sign perched on the steps that reads, “We Shall Overcome.”
Jon told us, “The new owners neglect to clean the sidewalks and stairs, leaving a daily mess for the community.
I was glad to see a group of homeless people have taken shelter and cleaned it up.”
As it turns out, the guys are apparently not homeless, at least not in the traditional sense. Christopher Marte, a community activist, told us he spoke with them a few days ago. They are young European travelers on a tight budget and were simply looking for a place to sleep. They had no clue about the significance of the spot they’d chosen as a crash pad.
Last spring, Slate Property Group, Adam America Real Estate and China Vanke purchased the property for $116 million after deed restrictions were mysteriously lifted. Multiple investigations have been swirling ever since. In the Wall Street Journal today, a spokesperson for the developers expressed confidence that they will eventually be able to move forward with their luxury condo conversion.
Other people are expressing themselves, using Rivington Street as a canvas. Here are a couple of additional photos from the Facebook page of Neighbors to Save Rivington House:
Slate Property Group is trying to repair its image in the aftermath of the Rivington House fiasco. The real estate firm’s co-founder, David Schwartz, sat down for an interview with the Real Deal.
Slate, China Vanke and Adam America Real Estate signed an agreement to buy the building at 45 Rivington St. for $116 million after city officials lifted deed restrictions on the longtime community facility. The purchase from the Allure Group plunged the de Blasio administration into one of its biggest controversies. The mayor said he believes Slate acted improperly and the city dumped the firm from a large project in Crown Heights.
Over the summer, a damaging email from Slate principal Martin Nussbaum was made public. Written to employees of his firm, it read, “Do not discuss this deal… The seller (Allure) is very concerned that the city and (healthcare workers) union will find out that he is in contract to sell at the price we are buying it which will directly impact his ability to have the deed restriction removed… Once he has it removed, we can do whatever we want.”
Now real estate developer is doing damage control. It hired a high-powered publicist from Rubenstein Communications, Bud Perrone, and George Arzt, a well-connected political consultant.
They’re portraying the principals as people with local roots who care about the neighborhoods in which they’re investing. In the interview, Schwartz said he had no idea the city was in the dark about their plans to convert the building to luxury condos. More from the Real Deal story:
While the (Nussbaum) email makes it clear that Slate knew Allure wanted to keep the sales price under wraps, Schwartz claimed the firm “had no reason to believe that the city was not aware and supportive” of the actual condo conversion, considering it had agreed to lift the deed restriction. “At the time, everything just seemed so normal,” Schwartz said, arguing that it is common for parties to want to keep real estate deals confidential until closing. “Nothing seemed weird other than, yeah, Allure probably didn’t want the whole world to know about it.”
Many people, of course, will dispute the notion that Slate’s founders are community-minded. Nussbaum was previously a principal of Silverstone Property Group. As the story points out, affordable housing advocates have been critical of Silverstone for pushing rent stabilized tenants out of its buildings. Some of those properties are located on the Lower East Side.