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Chelsea Now: Protected Buildings Fraudulently Marked For Destruction

By Sean Egan, 1/20/16

BY SEAN EGAN | A set of residential buildings in the middle of W. 38th St. became an unassuming battle site in preserving the character of Chelsea and Hell’s Kitchen, as well as a telling example of how vigilance and activism can yield results.

The buildings — two of them standing four stories tall and one at three stories — were acquired by an entity controlled by Peter Poon, who bought out the tenants living in the building in order to demolish the complex. Poon hails from Peter F. Poon Architects, known for developing budget hotels — and applied to do just that. His Dec. 2014 application indicates that he planned a 22-floor hotel on the W. 38th St. site. Furthermore, another associated application to the Department of Buildings (DOB) indicated that the current W. 38th St. buildings were single room occupancies (SROs), which they have never been. The contractors (H&O Associates) also claimed that the proposed construction would not increase or decrease the number of residences, nor would it alter their layouts — clearly at odds with the proposed demolition.

These falsifications, unnoticed by a process that relies largely upon on the honor system, brings to light an even greater flaw in the DOB’s application process: the buildings should never have been able to be marked for demolition in the first place, as they fall within the boundaries of the Special Garment Center District — a zoning district that makes them subject to particular restrictions with regards to demolition. As the residential buildings did not fall under the category of structures that are exempt from the demolition restrictions (hotels, school dorms, etc.), were not marked as unsafe, and did not receive a Certificate of No Harassment, demolition should have been out of the question. 

Making the case even more demonstrable of systemic dysfunction at the DOB is the way in which the situation was brought to light.

“We discovered this simply by my walking by the buildings — just bizarre,” said Joe Restuccia, a Community Board 4 (CB4) member. “I believe this was caught right at the beginning.”

As he walked past the buildings on Dec. 18, he noticed that there was scaffolding being erected around the building consistent with that used in demolition rather than façade work, and began to investigate the situation. When suspicions were confirmed, CB4 contacted local elected officials, including Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer, City Councilmember Corey Johnson, State Senator Brad Hoylman and State Assemblymember Richard Gottfried.

Through the efforts of CB4 and elected officials, the issue was brought to the attention of the DOB, which quickly issued a Stop Work Order on the buildings (windows had already been removed, in preparation for demolition, at the time of the Order). In mid-Jan., the DOB rejected the outstanding permits for demolition as well as the application for the building, following an audit conducted by the Department.

This victory for a community trying to protect the character of its neighborhood is a welcome, albeit rare, example of cooperation between residents, elected officials and the DOB — which has come under fire in recent months, due to similar incidents in which application fraud slipped through the cracks in the system — making clear the Department’s need for increased funds, and, more importantly, a centralized system.

While CB4 and others have acknowledged that their response to the situation (curtailing the destruction of the buildings and the razing of a hotel) is commendable, concern has also been expressed that the process was able to progress as far as it did, while flagrantly violating protocol — raising questions of the DOB’s willpower and ability to catch violations, and about how frequently buildings have passed by without anyone noticing or fighting back.

“Manhattan Community Board 4 has worked hard to preserve the diversity of our Hell’s Kitchen/Clinton and Chelsea neighborhoods by successfully securing protections against demolition and tenant harassment in the zoning,” reads a statement from CB4 Chair Delores Rubin. “The situation at 319-321 West 38th Street is cause for concern when the city allows developers to circumvent these protections.”

In a Jan. 20 email sent to Chelsea Now, DOB spokesperson Alex Schnell noted, “Following concerns raised by a local elected official regarding this project, the Department performed an audit of all of the applicant’s documents, and it was determined that the form had a misstatement on it when it was filed. The Department has proceeded to revoke the permits. A Certificate of No Harassment will need to be obtained from HPD [Housing Preservation & Development] prior to proceeding with this project.”

Commenting on the falsification of DOB documents that pass with “not even a question, let alone a red flag,” Restuccia described the prevailing mood among CB4 membership as “frightening for us, that the Department of Buildings has no means or methods to check that if somebody’s filed something in an affidavit, that they’d enter it, and it wouldn’t bounce.”

It’s a situation Restuccia believes is becoming far too common. “How many are out there,” he wondered, “that we’re not seeing? The moral is: You don’t walk down the right streets, you lose two buildings.”