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.”