Failure to Find False Filings Endangers Protected Buildings | chelseanow.com

Failure to Find False Filings Endangers Protected Buildings

Their location within the Special Clinton District did not protect a pair of four-story buildings at 335-337 W. 55th St. Photo by Levar Alonzo.

BY LEVAR ALONZO | Community Board 4 (CB4) was up in arms as lapses by the Department of Buildings (DOB) allowed for two more residential buildings to be demolished.

The pair of four-story residential buildings at 335-337 W. 55th St. (btw. Eighth & Ninth Aves.) that are zoned in the Special Clinton District currently sit surrounded by scaffolding and construction netting.

According to DOB records, the building owner filed for a series of alterations that included adding two more floors, extending the rear, removing the interior stairway, and placing a passenger elevator in the building. DOB approved the application for the alterations in 2012 but the form made no mention of full-scale demolition. 

“We learn that the DOB tolerates when developers lie to them on forms that are filed… I get angry when people lie to me,” said Assemblymember Richard Gottfried at the Oct. 4 full board meeting of CB4. “It doesn’t seem to bother the DOB much, because when they follow up on a complaint they tell the developers just file new paperwork.”

CB4 believes that landowners checked off on the work as alterations in order to mask the complete demolition and restoration of the buildings, a technique they are very familiar with. The board also noted that the owner had managed to eliminate all the residential units in the buildings.

“This is a far to common problem in our neighborhoods, landlords or owners file with the DOB for alterations to be done on their buildings, but those changes often include a full scale demo,” said CB4 member Joe Restuccia, who also serves as executive director of Clinton Housing Development Company. “If you walk by these buildings today,” Restuccia noted, “you will see for yourself the full scale demolition that is happening.”

In the CB4 Clinton/Hell’s Kitchen Land Use committee’s proposed letter to the DOB, along with unanimous support from the full community board, they asked the city to place an immediate Stop Work Order on the buildings.

Their letter expressed the board’s outrage and requested that the DOB to “treat this matter with the urgency it requires.”

Elsewhere in letter, the committee noted, “The owner, who filed renovation work under the DOB, has not only exceeded the scope of work described in the job application, but also successfully vacated the building and demolished all the residential units.”

Gottfried urged CB4 to be relentless in writing letters, and then decide when they are going to start sending copies of the letters to the press. This was in response to a question asked about what can be done regarding the DOB allowing faulty demolition applications to go through in special districts. 

Restuccia explained that even though special districts protect these buildings, reasons for slip-ups within the DOB could be due to high turnover rates and new workers in the DOB unfamiliar with how the neighborhoods are protected.

“Buildings in the special districts can only be demolished if the city determines they are unsafe, or they certify the landlord did not harass tenants into leaving,” Restuccia said. “Then there is a public comment period by the community board.”

He noted that since last year, 21 buildings have been called into question in special districts where landowners have sought to demolish the building contrary to special zoning requirements.

Joe Restuccia (second from left) at the Sept. 13 meeting of CB4’s Clinton/Hell’s Kitchen Land Use committee. Photo by Levar Alonzo.

One frustrated board member asked Gottfried to give them ideas of how not to throw away paper in the form of complaints, in fighting with landowners and holding the DOB accountable.

“Keep at it. Keep writing letters to the District Attorney’s office. Inundate them with case after case after case,” he said. “This could have a cumulative effect and in the process add the DOB and the mayor’s office to the emails.”

Gottfried noted that he has been urging Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance, Jr. to go after landowners that want to fool the government.

“If you file faulty paperwork to the government to get anything from the government, that’s a felony,” said Gottfried. “We need to start going after these landlords and owners.”

In response to the board seeking answers and to offer some solace, CB4 chairperson Delores Rubin said that the DOB has been working with local elected officials and the board to place tags and flags on addresses in some areas to differentiate special districts.

“We do have a meeting with the chief administrative officer of the agency, so hopefully we will be able to move this conversation along to a more serious level,” Rubin said. “As we know resources are thin throughout the agencies that tends to be the reason they cite that they can’t catch these offenders.”

A glimmer of hope has arisen in the form of new legislation that gives tenants protection against unscrupulous landlords and building owners.

A Chelsea Now article of Oct. 5, 2017 (“New Laws Give More Muscle to Tenant Safety”) noted that the final of 12 Stand For Tenant Safety Coalition bills was passed by the NY City Council on Sept. 27 — and with it, significant advancements for the DOB in the quest for detecting landlord abuses, enforcing existing policies, and protecting tenants.

“These bills,” said the article, “should bring a greater shift toward prioritizing tenant issues at the agency, but lawmaking is only a start.”