After stop-work order lifts, focus shifts to 5th St.


By Lincoln Anderson

The Department of Buildings last Thursday lifted a stop-work order at 120 St. Mark’s Pl., allowing interior demolition at the former Cave artists’ squat to proceed. A stop-work order had been issued on April 17, after workers for a developer with an option to buy the building, Ben Shaoul, president of Magnum Management, had excavated down 10 feet in the backyard without permits and without shoring up the hole. In addition, D.O.B. said, the work had caused a bulge on the building’s rear wall.

The artists who had been squatting in the building took buyouts from Shaoul about a month ago. Before that, however, he and his workers — who came carrying sledgehammers and crowbars — visited the building twice in an intimidating manner, knocking down some of the squatters’ doors.

Jennifer Givner, a Buildings spokesperson, said the stop-work order was lifted after Shaoul had submitted an engineering report and showed how he would hold up and stabilize the old tenement’s floors, which were dangerously bowed because of decay.

“The exterior walls are solid. The floors had rotted,” Givner said. “He needed to show how it would be supported as they proceeded.”

In related news, there were conflicting reports about whether work at another East Village building owned by Shaoul, 515 E. Fifth St., had failed a D.O.B. audit.

Susan Stetzer, district manager of Community Board 3, said last week that she’d gotten word the building had failed the audit, but said she didn’t have all the details.

But, speaking on Tuesday, Givner said that wasn’t the case.

“As of today, there has been no finalization of the audit,” she said. “It has not failed the audit yet. The determination has not been made.”

Givner said the audit is examining whether the work complies with zoning and with building code regulations, among other things. The work includes adding one story and a penthouse to the building.

Michael Soleimani, vice president of Magnum Management, said he also had not heard that there was a final determination on the audit of 515 E. Fifth St.

“I know the tenants had some issues,” Soleimani said. “I have nothing to hide — I’m happy to comply with the Department of Buildings.”

Last year, Shaoul applied for a so-called demolition eviction in which 515 E. Fifth St. would have undergone a gut rehab and the tenants been permanently evicted. He dropped the plan earlier this year after it came under scrutiny when the tenants criticized it at a C.B. 3 meeting. Soleimani told The Villager they dropped the idea because it “was no longer economically feasible.”

City Councilmember Rosie Mendez has been keeping an eye on the situation at the Fifth St. building.

“My office is working with the tenants there,” she said. “I do know that it is one of the proposed demolition buildings.” She called demolition evictions a “phony demolition.” Mendez noted that while the application currently is not active, Shaoul could still activate it at anytime.

Mendez said 515 E. Fifth St. and another building, 47 E. Third St. — where the landlords, Alistair and Catherine Economakis, are trying to evict the tenants so they can turn the building into their own private mansion — “are two cases where the regulations are being perverted.”

Mendez lived next to another building owned by Shaoul, 638 E. 11th St., where Shaoul’s practices effectively caused the eviction of tenants. She claimed Shaoul was guilty of harassing tenants on E. 11th St. by bringing in the Fire Department to conduct drills in apartments next to ones still occupied by tenants. At one point, Shaoul’s construction workers damaged the building so seriously the tenants were forced to evacuate.

Meanwhile, Mendez said, construction work at 515 E. Fifth St. is making it hard for the tenants still living there to enjoy a modicum of peace and quiet.

“You have patterns of behavior that repeats,” Mendez said. “In this case, patterns of harassment from building to building.”

As for Shaoul’s heavy-handed tactics with the Cave squatters, Mendez, a longtime housing activist, noted, “Squatters do have rights, but squatters’ rights are minimal.”

Similarly, in 2001, Shaoul was accused of harassing Chinese tenants living at 166 Elizabeth St. in Nolita, a building he had recently acquired and was converting into luxury apartments.

Haeyoung Yoon, an attorney at MFY Legal Services, represented a group of Chinese tenants who fought to keep their apartments.

“He grabbed the wallet of one tenant. He called the Administration for Children’s Services on another tenant,” Yoon said. “He pushed into people’s apartments. People lived with a collapsed ceiling for months.”

Yoon said Shaoul retaliated by suing the Committee Against Anti-Asian Violence, with whom she was working at the time. In the end, there was a global settlement and Shaoul dropped his charges. Most, if not all, of the original tenants have since left.

“The building has a new door. It’s a very fancy, kind of gentrified building,” Yoon said. “He’s not unique. What happened to Elizabeth St. is happening everywhere because of gentrification pressures in New York City.”