City suddenly drops crusade to block Chelsea Hotel upgrade

The Chelsea Hotel.
Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

By Gabriel Sandoval, THE CITY

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This article was originally published on by THE CITY

Citing “new evidence,” city officials have withdrawn their bid to deny an owner of the legendary Chelsea Hotel clearance to complete renovations — allowing the transformation of the weathered landmark into an upscale hotel. 

A few tenants who’ve lived for years amid construction are questioning whether the evidence is to be trusted while others just want to see the work get done.

“I’m waiting for it to get back to normal,” said resident Mickie Esemplare. “We’ve been sitting too long like this.” 

On Tuesday, an attorney for the city’s housing agency wrote a letter to a city administrative judge to pull the case against Ira Drukier, owner of the famed Manhattan hotel on West 23rd Street where iconic artists, writers and musicians once resided. 

Early last March, the city Department of Housing Preservation and Development argued in a Manhattan courtroom that unsafe conditions caused by years of renovations amounted to tenant harassment — and that Drukier should not be granted a “certificate of no harassment” required to convert hotels into permanent lodgings. 

Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY
Mickie Esemplare in his Chelsea Hotel studio apartment.

HPD acted after some tenants sued Drukier and the city in 2019, arguing that construction was illegal because the Chelsea Hotel lacked such a certificate. City law asks owners converting hotels to obtain the documents from the city to help ensure that remaining tenants aren’t disrupted during reconstruction.

But the end of 2020 brought a plot twist, via a document excavated from city archives by a consultant working for Drukier.

The record, dated 1997, shows the Chelsea Hotel’s then-owner had obtained an exemption to the standard requirement for a certificate, based on the building’s status as a “luxury hotel.”

The city’s letter this week to Judge Noel Garcia noted the exemption “only came to HPD’s attention and its counsel on December 30, 2020.” 

The HPD attorney wrote that the agency’s own database, containing such records only from 2006 onward, did not reveal the exemption. Nor did the piece of paper turn up when lawyers for the owner filed a freedom of information request seeking such records.

With the case closed, official orders halting construction have been lifted, city Department of Building records indicate

Said Jennifer Recine, an attorney for the hotel, in a statement to THE CITY: “The owners are relieved to be able to get back to work after more than two years.”

Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY
A construction worker inside the Chelsea Hotel, Sept. 30, 2020.

Lawyer Casts Doubt

An attorney representing tenants who’ve been battling the owners in court declared HPD’s decision to drop the case “highly suspicious.”

“After nearly a decade of abuse, and years of providing documentation of systemic harassment by the owners of the Chelsea Hotel to HPD, HPD took the fate of the Chelsea hotel owners out of the judge’s hands and threw in the towel,” lawyer Leon Behar said in a statement to THE CITY.

“HPD based their decision on a document from 1997 that they had no record of, knew nothing about, and was incomplete; HPD doesn’t even know if the document is authentic or not.”

He is demanding an investigation of what happened.

HPD was not immediately available to comment Thursday night on Behar’s remarks.

As THE CITY reported in 2019, Drukier and co-owner Richard Born were generous donors to Mayor Bill de Blasio’s political projects as he readied a run for the Democratic nomination for president, while their request for a certificate of no harassment was first pending. 

‘Sitting Too Long’

In a statement to THE CITY earlier, a spokesperson for the housing agency said the city doesn’t tolerate tenant harassment.  

“While HPD has withdrawn this particular legal challenge, New Yorkers should use every right available to them to hold bad landlords accountable,” said spokesperson Anthony Proia. “That means contacting HPD’s Anti-Harassment Unit by calling 311, or the Mayor’s Office to Protect Tenants. Make no mistake: if New Yorkers feel unsafe at home, their city will stand up for them.”

Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY
Construction has been going on inside the Chelsea Hotel for a decade.

As the administrative hearing continued in recent months — moving to online sessions as COVID took hold — tenants have been at odds with one another over the fate of their storied home, and over HPD’s intervention.   

While a small number of tenants sued Drukier and his partners to stop the conversion, many neighbors have trained their furor on HPD, blaming the agency for holding up progress on the work and leaving them living in an unfinished building. 

Esemplare, a third-floor resident of the Chelsea Hotel, told THE CITY he felt relief when a neighbor told him about HPD’s decision to drop its case. 

“My hope is that they can get it done, so we won’t be living in a construction area zone all the time,” said Esemplare, 58, who’s lived in the hotel since 2001. 

Sybao Cheng-Wilson, 65, who lives on the 10th floor with her family, said 10 years of construction, starting under previous owners, have been awful. 

She said she got sick and suffered an infection that left her eyes swollen and droopy. She ultimately needed eye surgery.

“We’re dying to get this place completed,” Cheng-Wilson said.

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