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45 Rivington Street in Manhattan.

45 Rivington Street in Manhattan. Photo Credit: Mark Chiusano

Melissa Aase’s office looks out on 45 Rivington St., a now-controversial red-brick building on the Lower East Side. The building, known as Rivington House, is the subject of three probes investigating how Mayor Bill de Blasio’s administration allowed a nursing home for HIV/AIDS patients to be sold to developers, who want to build luxury condos.

The building had been protected by a deed restriction that prevented such a switch. But with virtually no public notice, the city lifted the restriction, and a building in a rapidly gentrifying neighborhood that had been carefully protected for public good is now set to become more high-end housing.

Aase is the executive director of University Settlement, a community center founded in 1886 to serve the area’s immigrant population. Today, it hosts English classes, childcare and after-school programs, the same kind of neighborhood resource that 45 Rivington St. was — first as a school and then a nursing home.

Before the nursing home closed, patients would sit in the nearby community garden, Aase said, watching University Settlement’s early child care programs at work. Sometimes, kids from University Settlement would visit the nursing home.

Now, such organic aspects of community will be gone.

“This deal took everyone by surprise,” Aase says.   
An oversight or a favor?

The surprise began when the building was sold to a nursing home operator in early 2015.

Once a busy, specialized facility, the HIV/AIDS nursing home was increasingly underutilized because of changes in medical treatment. Community board members and local leaders say they supported a deed modification (the original deed restriction limited the building to non-profit activity). A modification would allow for different usage — general senior care facilities, for example—while keeping some restrictions in place and ensuring that the facility remained a health care facility in some form.

But the Department of Citywide Administrative Services lifted the restrictions at the bequest of the new nursing home operators, with a perfunctory notice in the City Record and limited assurances from the company to city and state officials that the building would continue to provide health-care. The nursing home operators then turned a hefty profit by selling the land to developers who had very different plans for the site.

Making matters murkier, an official at the nursing home operator donated $4,950 to the de Blasio mayoral campaign (the mayor has said he will return the contribution), and a lobbyist with close ties to de Blasio has reportedly done work for the nursing home’s original operator and the new developer.

De Blasio says he didn’t know about the issue, and that he would have put a stop to the deal immediately if he had. He has issued an executive order meant to increase transparency in similar situations.

The local community board wrote to his office shortly before the property was sold, explaining the potential outcome after it pieced together the implications of the deal. The community board says it got no response.

“We are supposed to be the eyes and ears on the ground,” said Gigi Li, chair of Manhattan Community Board 3.

In this case, they tried to be. But the deal moved forward.
An opportunity lost

Ironically, the mayor has been ignoring community boards quite a bit recently over his citywide rezoning initiatives, meant in part to harness development and require developers to build affordable housing in exchange for market-rate development.

Community boards across the city, including this one, overwhelmingly opposed the plan, for reasons ranging from a lack of affordability to fear of a one-size fits all plan or increased neighborhood density.

But the mayor pushed the plan through, claiming that it was the only way to get hold of gentrification and rampant development in New York City and turn it into something useful.

That’s just what didn’t happen here. The neighborhood had gone through “incredible changes,” said Aase, from University Settlement, some of them good — 24 years ago, the park down the block was “unwalkable,” she says. It’s a lively park now, with an AstroTurf soccer field and new playground equipment.

As the neighborhood changed, Aase said that its economic diversity was preserved, through some 14,000 NYCHA units, for example, and a number of nearby community-support organizations were able to get buildings when they were abandoned and continue to serve the community.

But looming high-rises are threatening locals, as landlords see a potential profit and push residents out so they can bring units out of rent stabilization.

Those residents hanging onto their spaces are getting older. It’s “harder to live in walkups,” Aase says. They’re in need of something like supportive or senior housing, which 45 Rivington might have turned into — shaping the changing neighborhood for the better.

That opportunity, unnecessarily, appears to have been given away.

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