On Ave. B, trying to turn community space into condos


By Ellen Keohane

On hot summer days, it’s hard to imagine that any pool in the city would go unused. But there’s one, lined with mold, that’s been empty for more than 20 years in Christodora House, an upscale condo building in the East Village.

In addition to the pool, there’s also an abandoned gym, an empty office and a few small rooms, which no one uses. All are zoned for community facility use, which means if Christodora House sells or rents out that space, it has to be used as a community facility, said Brian Fenwick, a 15-year Christodora House resident and condo board member.

According to the Department of City Planning, the definition of a community facility can include “a wide range of educational, health care, religious and not-for-profit institutions.”

In August 2004, Christodora House, which is located on Ninth St. at Avenue B across from Tompkins Sq. Park, took steps to convert the gym and office into four new residential units by applying for a variance from the New York City Board of Standards and Appeals.

But early last month, Christodora House officially withdrew their application to the B.S.A. “Essentially, when you get a variance, you have two or three years to act on the variance and you’re committed to go ahead with the project,” said Fenwick. “As it was getting close to our deadline, we thought it would be best to hold back a little bit.”

Susan Howard, a Lower East Side resident who would like to see the community facilities in Christodora House opened to the public, felt encouraged by the decision. Now that the variance has been withdrawn, Howard hoped Christodora House residents can be convinced to “allow the public in.”

Although the pool, gym, office and small rooms are zoned for community facility use, Christodora House has no obligation to rent or sell the space, said Fenwick. He described the space as a “safety hazard,” “completely raw” with a “slab floor” and “no plumbing or electricity.” When a reporter from The Villager requested to see the space, Fenwick replied by e-mail that due to safety and liability issues, the space could not be shown.

Built in 1928 as a settlement house, Christodora House provided food, shelter, education and health services to low-income immigrants in New York City at that time. The building housed a music school and theater, as well as the gym and swimming pool. Various accounts report that George Gershwin gave his first public performance in the building.

Following World War II, the building fell into disrepair and eventually the city took it over. Various community groups continued to occupy the building through the 1960s, until water damage to the building’s electrical system caused it to be condemned around 1969.

Christodora House sat vacant until 1975, when it was sold at public auction for less than $75,000. The building changed hands a couple more times before being purchased by real estate investors Harry Skydell and Samuel Glasser in the early 1980s. The two men renovated the building into luxury condos in 1986, sparking neighborhood antigentrification demonstrations in the late 1980s.

One of the first condo owners was none other than rocker Iggy Pop, who wrote his record “Avenue B” while he lived in Christodora House.

It’s unclear when the space was zoned for community use, but Fenwick thought it might have occurred when the building was converted into condominiums in 1986.

In September 2004, the Community Board 3 Housing Committee and full board passed a motion to deny Christodora House’s request for a variance to turn the building’s gym and office into four new condo units, on the basis that the applicant had not demonstrated “sufficient effort” to rent the space as a community facility.

An Oct. 5, 2004, letter to Meenakshi Srinivasan, B.S.A. chairperson, from C.B. 3, signed by David McWater, C.B. 3 chairperson, and Sam Wilkenfeld, C.B. 3 Housing and Land Use Committee chairperson, stated the board’s opinion that Christodora House did not demonstrate sufficient financial hardship that warranted “the loss of this designated community facility space.”

Despite the resolution by C.B. 3, Christodora House requested the variance anyway, although they continued to search for an appropriate tenant for the space, said Fenwick.

Renting the space has been a challenge, Fenwick said. “The problem is that people who can afford to bring the space up to code, don’t fit the community facility use definition,” he said. In addition to advertising in The New York Times, Christodora House also hired a broker in late 2000, who resigned after a year because “he didn’t think it could be done,” Fenwick said. After that, the condo board tried to rent the space itself.

In May of 1999, the Martha Graham Dance Company was interested in renting the space, but Fenwick said, “they bailed,” due to internal difficulties within the company. Bellevue Hospital, in 2002, also wanted to put a satellite clinic in the building, but the space was too small. The Salvation Army also looked at the property in 2000, but they wanted Christodora House to bring it up to code, which the condo says it couldn’t afford. Other groups have also been interested in the space, but for various reasons, nothing has worked out, Fenwick said.

Around four years ago, Christodora House hired an architect to conduct a feasibility study to see if they could restore the swimming pool, but the project would have been too expensive, and the plan was subsequently abandoned, Fenwick said.

For now, the only community facility space that’s being utilized in Christodora House is one of the small rooms, which is used for bicycle storage by the building’s residents, said Fenwick.

Space designated for community use in the Christodora House condominium apartment building on Avenue B has been sitting unused for years.