Changes Coming to CB4

BY EILEEN STUKANE  |  The elections weren’t over on November 5 — at least not for Community Board 4 (CB4).

In an evening filled with news of change, CB4’s current officers presided over their next-to-last full board meeting on Wednesday, November 6, at the Fulton Center Auditorium. City Councilmember-elect Corey Johnson, who will be leaving the chairmanship of CB4, received congratulations from many on his sweeping victory the day before.

Betty Mackintosh, chair of CB4’s seven-member nominating committee, presented a slate of new officers whose election will be determined at the next full board meeting — December 4, at the Hotel Trades Council Auditorium (305 West 44th Street).

After interviewing and vetting candidates, the nominating committee recommended for: Chair: Christine Berthet; 1st Vice Chair: Hugh Weinberg; 2nd Vice Chair: Delores Rubin; Co-Secretary: Frank Holozubiec; Co-Secretary: Miranda Nelson. This meeting offered a last chance for nominations from the floor, and Burt Lazarin took the opportunity to nominate Raoul Larios for 2nd Vice Chair. The nomination was seconded, and Larios accepted.

Larios, currently co-chair of CB4’s Budget and Jobs Task Force, rose to announce the first anniversary of CB4’s Community Jobs Project. At the one year mark, the Project has a dozen employers in the community posting opportunities on CB4’s jobs webpage: nyc.gov/html/mancb4/html/job_opportunities/jobs3.shtml.

The goal is to pair community businesses with job seekers in Chelsea and Hell’s Kitchen/Clinton. Friends of the High Line, the first organization to sign on, continues to post. The Hudson River Park Trust and Housing Conservation Coordinators Inc. are also among the participants. Larios emphasized, “These are good jobs, good paying jobs and jobs with good benefits.” His goal is to bring at least 20 percent of CB4’s over 100,000 residents to the webpage, and to increase the number of employers who post openings.

Right now, the project is anchored in the good will of employers seeking to optimize relations within the community. To bring others into the project, Larios spoke about his plan to explore Community Benefits Agreements (CBAs) — which require developers to commit to addressing social and economic issues such as local transportation, jobs and housing in the their projects. The first CBA was created in 2001 when an agreement was struck for a hotel-and-entertainment project being developed next to the Staples Center in Los Angeles. More recently, a CBA was created in CB11’s East Harlem community. As part of the East River Project Development, developers agreed to commit $350,000 for four years to a mutually agreed upon nonprofit organization that would pre-screen potential job candidates from the community. According to Larios, the developer would interview qualified candidates from this pool before going outside the community, and to hire a target 75 percent from within the community. “When it comes to the large ULURP [Uniform Land Use Review Procedure] projects that regularly come through CB4, such as Chelsea Market, Pier 57 and the Culture Shed, I think we can negotiate much better terms,” said Larios.


Built in 1898, the First Evangelical United Brethren Church later became Theater Four (“The Boys In The Band” debuted). The building will soon be torn down, to make way for affordable housing. Photo by Jean-Daniel Noland.
Built in 1898, the First Evangelical United Brethren Church later became Theater Four (where “The Boys In The Band” played). The building will soon be torn down, to make way for affordable housing. Photo by Jean-Daniel Noland.

Many development projects that involve conversions or demolitions of buildings come before CB4 — but rarely does a building receive the special farewell that CB4 member Jean-Daniel Noland gave 424 West 55th Street (between 9th and 10th Avenues), the church that became a groundbreaking theater. “The building is going to be torn down for affordable housing,” said Noland. “Before it is gone, let us take a moment to remember its history.”

Built in 1898 as the First Evangelical United Brethren Church, the building was originally a refuge for German immigrants. In 1962, the interior was converted into Theater Four — and on April 14, 1968, “The Boys In The Band” opened there. “This was the first play to portray a group of gay male characters on stage,” said Noland. “It was controversial, shocking, and it ran for over a thousand performances. ‘Boys In The Band’ has been called one of the few plays that can claim to have helped start a social revolution. A year after it opened, the Stonewall Riot erupted.” The theater also become home to the Negro Ensemble Company, “and in that space on West 55th Street in 1981, Charles Fuller’s ‘A Soldier’s Play’ won a Pulitzer Prize. Laurence Fishburne, Moses Gunn, Phylicia Rashad and Denzel Washington performed there.” The Manhattan Theater Club resided there for a while until finally, it became the Julia Miles Theater of the Women’s Project (the only women’s theater company to have its own stage). Noland distributed photos of the building and encouraged everyone to celebrate and remember that for over half-a-century, it provided “a space where men and women could create plays which played an important part in the struggle for acceptance, dignity and empowerment for all men and women in this country.”

Another 19th Century building that received attention of a different kind during the meeting: the Windermere, built in 1881 at 400 West 57th Street. After being vacant and derelict since 2007, the landmark building’s new owner, Mark Tress of Windermere Properties, is proposing a restoration and conversion to a 175-room boutique hotel. Issues involving Tress’ plans drew comments from the developer’s lawyer and four community residents who spoke out during the public comment session, and prompted lengthy discussion during the member session.

Citing architectural reasons, CB4’s Landmarks Committee objected to a ninth floor for the building. Community residents were more concerned about the rooftop addition’s possible use as a venue for music, food and public gatherings. The Landmarks Committee also wants a proposed wheelchair lift designed less obtrusively, with respect to the building’s entry porticos. Michael Silverman, lawyer for the owners, acknowledged that they were at the beginning of the development process, and they would be returning for future meetings of committees. “We recognize that there are quality of life and security concerns,” he said, “We thank the board for starting the process for us,” he said, adding, “We want to be a good neighbor.”

At the turn of the 20th Century, the Windermere was a residence for unmarried women. It continued to be well-run into the 1970s when it was a building of Single Room Occupancy (SRO) units and small apartments. In the 1980s, owners harassed the tenants so violently that they were criminally indicted, fined and jailed. The Windermere devolved into emptiness and disrepair until the Tress purchase — but the building’s history led to the Clinton Cure For Harassment, which requires the new owners to provide 28 percent of existing residential floor area to affordable housing for households earning no more than 80 percent of the New York City area median income. Tress plans to work with the Metropolitan Council on Jewish Poverty, which would offer senior housing only, to people 55 and over. CB4 questioned this skewed population, since tenants of all ages were forced out during times of harassment.

Zoning is also an issue, as the owners want to take the 68,546 square feet of floor area and after gutting the interior, apply for a waiver for 40,000 additional square feet for commercial use. After member discussion, Johnson acknowledged that the Windermere conversion was “the beginning of a conversation that’s going to last a while.” A five-page, single spaced letter to the Landmarks Preservation Commission was approved with language revisions and the recommendation for landmarks preservation of certain interior areas.


Anthony Borelli, of HLP Properties, explains the removal of coal tar from 10th to 11th Aves., btw. W. 17th & W. 18th Sts. (an area that is now a parking lot). Photo by Eileen Stukane.
Anthony Borelli, of HLP Properties, explains the removal of coal tar from 10th to 11th Aves., btw. W. 17th & W. 18th Sts. (an area that is now a parking lot). Photo by Eileen Stukane.

What is called a “remediation process” to remove tons of polluting coal tar from underneath an entire block that is the site of a parking lot (West 17th to West 18th Streets, 10th to 11th Avenues) has begun. Anthony Borelli, representing HLP Properties, offered an explanation of what will be a yearlong activity, being conducted in accordance with the rules of the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation. The site, which is being prepared for future development, is on land that was occupied in the early 1900s by Manhattan Gas Light Company, which used coal to produce gas for heating and cooking. Coal tar, the industrial by-product now classified as hazardous waste, was left behind.

The land is being excavated at different levels, depending on soil conditions. Where possible, the coal tar is being pumped out, carted away and replaced with clean landfill. In certain areas, the coal tar will not be able to be entirely removed, but will be mixed with cement and stabilized. Borelli described security and safety measures and reported that the 10th Avenue side should be returned to parking operations by the end of the year, and the entire process completed by October 2014. CB4 member Pamela Wolf questioned whether archaeological monitoring would take place, and Borelli promised to get back to the board with an answer.

CB4’s district manager Robert Benfatto reported that the Fulton Houses Project of 158 units went before the City Planning Commission and resolved issues surrounding the placement of a trash compactor located at 420 West 20th Street. The project is moving ahead. Benfatto additionally addressed the Pier of Fear (a Halloween event on Piers 92 and 94, at West 53rd to West 54th Streets). The concert event was reduced from five to three days, and Benfatto thanked Assemblymember Linda Rosenthal for her help, especially in lowering the noise levels of the event. “There were complaints on Facebook by people who went to the event, that the noise was too low,” said Benfatto. CB4’s Quality of Life Committee will meet to go over plans for a New Year’s Eve event planned for the piers.

Of the 24 letters on the evening’s agenda to be voted upon by the board, the letter to the Landmarks Preservation Commission regarding the Windermere received heaviest discussion. Concern was also given to CB4’s letter to the New York State Liquor Authority (SLA), in reference to the Esquire NYC Gentlemen’s Club planned for 622 West 47th Street. The character of the club’s owner, Glen Bernardi, was brought into question during the public comment session. Also owner of the Sapphire New York Gentlemen’s Club (a strip club he brought from Las Vegas to East 60th Street,) Bernardi was accused of threatening a tenant in a building he owned. CB4’s letter to the SLA recommended denial of a liquor license unless 13 stipulations (also required in 2010 of a former gentlemen’s club on the site) were met. Paul Seres, co-chair of CB4’s Business License & Permits Committee, argued separating the liquor license issue from the character of the owner. The letter was approved by the members with a divided vote.

Assemblymember Richard Gottfried spoke about the November 5 vote approving casino development in the state of New York. “Implementing legislation, passed before the amendment was put on the ballot, states that for the first seven years of the amendment no casinos can be built in New York City’s five boroughs or surrounding suburbs,” said Gottfried, adding “but seven years go pretty fast and we have no protection after that.” He pledged to investigate local zoning, further legislation and any other measures that may offer protection from casino development.

For Manhattan Borough President/Comptroller Elect Scott Stringer, Hunter Johansson reported that applications to join community boards were available on the website: mbpo.org. He also announced free flu shots would be given on Friday, November 15, at 1 Centre Street, 19th Floor South. RSVPs are required: 212-669-4451 or rsvp@manhattanbp.org.

Jackie Blank, representing Congressman Jerrold Nadler, stated that Nadler submitted testimony to the NYC Department of Housing Preservation & Development (HPD) condemning the proposal to eliminate certain family members from succession eligibility in Mitchell-Lama co-ops. Paul Sawyer, for Assemblymember Linda Rosenthal, said that she also testified her opposition to the changes in Mitchell-Lama rules, and wrote to the HPD Commissioner to urge a stop to a particular policy change requiring Section 8 single tenants to downsize to studios to offset the sequester. Sawyer also noted Rosenthal’s efforts to reduce noise levels for events on Piers 92 and 94, and her recommendation that the NYC Economic Development Corp., which leases out the space, should make it more suitable for containing high-volume events.

Robert Atterbury, representing NY State Senator Brad Hoylman, reported that Hoylman had spearheaded a letter to the SLA, also signed by NYC Council Speaker Quinn and Assemblymember Gottfried, regarding the CB4 community’s concern about the Gem Hotel’s plan for rooftop use. He urged the SLA to adhere to CB4’s stipulations. At earlier CB4 meetings, the Gem’s neighbors had spoken out about the inappropriateness of rooftop use for food and drink in the residential neighborhood. Hoylman is also working to control SantaCon, a mass pub crawl of people clad in Santa suits passing through the neighborhoods. Hoylman’s letter to SantaCon organizers was published in the October 23 issue of Chelsea Now (as a Talking Point).

Harriet Sedgwick, for NYC Council Speaker Christine Quinn, announced the Council’s October 30th vote to raise the tobacco sales minimum age from 18 to 21 — a measure that could potentially reduce the smoking rate in that age group by 55 percent. First-time retail offenders will be fined $1000, and $2000 for a second offense. The Council also passed a bill motivated by Hurricane Sandy to require new or substantially improved healthcare facilities in areas above expected flood levels.

Edgar Yoo, for Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr., told of the DA office’s partnering with Univision 41 to produce Spanish-language public service announcement videos (PSAs), to alert immigrants to the work of the office and to encourage them to report crimes committed against them. The PSAs will play in 15 Latin American Consulate offices in Manhattan.