BY TINA BENITEZ-EVES | The rats crawl out through the cracks in the green board, and then out into the street. That’s how it’s been for years now, particularly during the hot summer months, in the area surrounding an empty lot on the corner of Avenue C and E. Sixth St.
An economy-size car could fit in the sinkhole that has sat open and unattended at 699 E. Sixth St., for more than 30 years. More than an eyesore for local residents and passersby, the 10-foot-by-12-foot crater has transformed into a cesspool of debris and vermin, the latter which have poured out onto the streets by the dozens when the sun goes down. The rats issuing from this hellhole scurry in front of residential buildings and local businesses — mostly restaurants and bars — along the east side of Avenue C, including country chicken eatery Bob White’s, ABC Beer Co., the newly opened Lois wine bar, Alphabet City Wine Co. and Edi & the Wolf.
“It’s a breeding ground for rats,” said David Hitchner, owner of several neighborhood establishments, including ABC Beer Co. and Alphabet City Wine Co., located just a few doors right from the lot, at 96 Ave. C and 100 Ave. C, respectively. Hitchner said that he and Austrian restaurant Edi & the Wolf complained to the city about the derelict property over the past few years, to no avail.
“It’s the ground zero of Avenue C, and of this area,” he said of the bombed-out-looking spot. “It bothers me that it’s still unattended.”
An Edi & the Wolf employee, who asked not to be identified, said that they reached out to the city — via phone calls to 311 and a letter — numerous times after the restaurant opened in 2011, but gave up after there was no action.
“We would love to have that hole cleaned up,” the employee said. “It’s not nice for the neighborhood. We’d like to see a building go up, anything but a hole.”
Hitchner added that he’s surprised that no one has stepped in to build on the nearly 9,500-square-foot property.
“I’m shocked that land of this value just sits there,” he said. “Even if it was used as a parking lot, it would be better than what is there now.”
In fact, the site was get a six-story building, but plans for the empty came to a halt 12 years ago, according to Department of Buildings records. At that time, owner Morton Kriger of 113 Willow Avenue Realty Co., planned to build a six-story residential building with eight units. Previously, Kriger, a property owner and New York City lawyer, was in hot water over hiring a worker who was convicted of dumping illegal asbestos at a property in Connecticut in 1997.
By 2008, there was another attempt, this time to build a four-story building, which was again shut down for not conforming to zoning.
More recently, in 2012, Willow Realty made a third try to develop the property, this time a six-story, 14-unit building. That project is still pending approval, according to D.O.B. records. Plans to build there were being reviewed as of August 2014.
Once sealed off by a chain-link fence, the property was later boarded up with 10-foot tall green plywood, which is how it remains today.
“People are just used to it,” Hitchner said with frustration. “New Yorkers just turn a blind eye, because there’s always scaffolding somewhere. Outsiders just think it’s more construction in the city.”
Hugh Mackie, owner of Sixth Street Specials, a vintage bike-repair shop just feet away from the hole at 703 E. Sixth St., said the empty lot with its filthy pit have been there as long as he’s been in the East Village.
Mackie, who moved to the area in 1981 and opened his shop in 1986, said the site was once a gas station. That may explain the huge hole in the ground, left after the gas station shut down, after how many years of operation, it was not immediately known. At one point, fuel tanks were left behind on the lot but later removed, according to Mackie. The property moved through various owners over the years — even serving briefly as an off-the-books parking lot at one point, Mackie said.
Now, all is still on the vacant lot — save for the rats — and the ripples on the oversize, putrid puddle.
“It’s an enormous problem, because it’s a like a little lake in there,” Mackie said. “Every time it rains, it fills up with water. There are many, many, many rats.”
Recently, rubble was piled up from the inside and additional boards were nailed up to cover holes and prevent rodents from spilling out into the street.
Mackie theorizes the site has had problems getting approved by D.O.B. because the owners continue to hire consultants from New Jersey who may be unfamiliar with New York City zoning and building codes. In fact, Jersey-based consultants have been used, according to D.O.B. records, since the first attempt to build on the site more than a dozen years ago.
Some residents have also been concerned about possible asbestos or other toxins in the empty lot that has been left unattended for so long.
However, Israel Rosenbaum, now listed as the property’s owner, said the property currently poses no health hazards and has undergone several, recent inspections, according to D.O.B. records. It has just been a waiting game, he explained.
“There are no issues at this property other than the long process of getting D.O.B. approval to construct a new building,” he told The Villager.
As for the rats, the problem has improved, locals say. There haven’t been as many sightings of the critters outside of the lot, according to Mackie, who says the city must have done something to get the pests under control. Nevertheless, it remains an unsightly space.
He remembers when the neighborhood had a local butcher, florist and bakery. He would like to see some of that return to the neighborhood — maybe beginning with the 699 E. Sixth St. site.
“I’d like a nice, regular-sized tenement with some businesses underneath, real stores — no more restaurants, no more bars. We have enough grocery stores and enough bodegas — just some kind of other businesses.”