Local elected officials and community leaders stood across the street from the former Rivington House building this morning, calling on the mayor to stop the luxury conversion of the former nursing facility.
Controversy has swirled around the mayor since the city comptroller opened an inquiry in March to find out why a restrictive deed was lifted. The former property owner, the Allure Group, profited more than $70 million by selling the building to luxury condo developers. Now the city’s Office of Investigation and the state attorney general have also launched investigations.
Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer, City Council member Margaret Chin and Community Board 3 Chairperson Gigi Li organized a news conference on the edge of Sara D. Roosevelt Park, just steps from the shuttered nursing home. They were joined by State Sen. Daniel Squadron, City Council member Rosie Mendez and District Leader Alice Cancel, among others.
VillageCare, which opened Rivington House as a not-for-profit AIDS hospice in 1995, announced the closure of the 219-bed center two years ago. Community Board 3 and Council member Chin advocated to keep the facility open as a nursing home for the general population. They supported a change in the deed, allowing the for-profit Allure Group to run the home. Much to everyone’s surprise, the facility closed this past December, the Allure Group selling the property — with all deed restrictions lifted — for $116 million.
Brewer this morning asserted that the whole point of deed restrictions is to make sure a luxury developer doesn’t “swoop in and take the property away from the community.” Referring to statements from the mayor that he didn’t know about the request to change the deed, Brewer added, “I take the mayor at his word. He said he didn’t know about it and that he would not have signed off on it if the issue had come to his attention. But admitting the mistake is only half of truly owning up to it. Once you make a mistake, you have to make it up to the people in the community.”
If the decision can’t be dialed back, said the borough president, the city must compensate the neighborhood for the loss of a community facility and the loss of 219 nursing home beds. “The city needs to invest in this community to replace a vital resource that has been lost,” she said. Local leaders and residents pointed to critical needs in the community, including affordable housing and more social services. They suggested that the city make up for the loss of Rivington House by addressing some of those needs.
Brewer and Chin are proposing legislation in the City Council that would require the mayor to notify local communities whenever changes in restrictive deeds are being considered. They also renewed their demand made March 29 for access to all documents turned over to city and state investigators. So far, their plea has been ignored.
When she took her turn at the microphone, Chin said, “I call on the mayor, Mayor de Blasio, to make this community whole and restore the 200 plus beds at Rivington House that we lost for the people of the Lower East Side and to make further investments toward their health and well being. We don’t need an apology. We need action!”
“Part of what led us to where we are today,” said CB3’s Gigi Li, “is that information was not given to us in a timely manner. It was not transparent what was going on.” Leaving the local community in the dark about the deed changes, she argued, made it impossible for people on the Lower East Side to advocate for their interests. “The community board plays a very active role in pulling stakeholders together around what we like to see… for our community,” Li said.
Finally, Squadron said, “It was a community priority to preserve Rivington House for the community and the city failed to do that. That is an unacceptable outcome. It was an unacceptable process.”
Elected officials, CB3 and local residents had been trying to get the city’s attention on Rivington House since we broke the story of the deed change Dec. 2. A mayoral spokesperson yesterday acknowledged that de Blasio’s Community Affairs Unit was told about the issue but explained, “no one understood the implications fully until late February.” Reporters today asked Council member Chin who in the administration was contacted. She responded that it was staff in the community affairs and inter-governmental affairs units.
One other issue came up during this morning’s Q & A. As previously reported on The Lo-Down, CB3 District Manager Susan Stetzer had been in contact with Joel Landau, an executive of the Allure Group throughout December. At one point, she invited him to attend an upcoming community board meeting to talk about the closure of the nursing home and plans to open another facility elsewhere on the Lower East Side. Landau declined, saying he would be out of town. Stetzer also asked him about reports from neighbors of the nursing home, who said they’d been contacted by people working with Slate Property Group. The neighbors were told Slate was in the process of buying the building and was planning condos. How did Landau respond? “He said he never heard of Slate,” Stetzer explained today. We now know that the Allure Group signed a contract for 45 Rivington with Slate and its partners in May of last year, seven months before Landau denied involvement with the firm.