Volume 75, Number 51 | May 10 - 16 2006

Villager photos by Jefferson Siegel

In photo at left, Christopher Santulli, acting Manhattan Borough Department of Buildings commissioner, center, tells Ben Shaoul, at left, to answer questions regarding the renovations at 515 E. Fifth St. in 10 days, as Borough President Scott Stringer, at right, partially blocked from view, listens. In photo at right, from right to left, Councilmember Rosie Mendez, Community Board 3 District Manager Susan Stetzer and Mendez aide John Fout inspect conditions at the tenement.

Buildings threatens to revoke permit on E. 5th St.

By Lincoln Anderson

With Borough President Scott Stringer and Councilmember Rosie Mendez leading the way, the acting borough commissioner of the Department of Buildings delivered a letter to the developer of 515 E. Fifth St. on Monday warning that his permit would be revoked if he fails to answer questions about the renovations he’s doing.

Stringer, Mendez and Acting Commissioner Christopher Santulli conducted a tour up and down the East Village tenement, accompanied by housing activists from Cooper Square Committee and Good Old Lower East Side.

“We have some zoning concerns on the building, but we didn’t find any safety concerns,” Santulli noted at the outset. The letter, which follows an audit of the building, includes 19 specific conditions that need to be addressed. One involves Shaoul’s creation of an alleged community facilites space on the ground floor, which allows the developer to increase the building’s total space; Shaoul is adding a penthouse covering the entire roof, basically an extra story.

Yet, D.O.B. notes the community facility space is designed residentially with a bathroom and cooking facilities and will increase the number of ground-floor units, which is not permitted.

Shaoul is still allowed to do work on the building during the 10-day response period.

Shaoul last year filed for a so-called demolition eviction to gut rehab the building, under which he could force the tenants out permanently. He later dropped the plan. The handful of remaining tenants, though, still feel he’s trying to chase them out — through the ongoing construction work.

“They’re trying to get us out if they can get us out,” said Joe Lubaszka, whose brother used to be the landlord but is now in a hospice. “If my brother was never sick, this wouldn’t be happening,” he said.

Monte Schapiro, another tenant, charged the construction work is violating the tenants’ right to “habitability.” He said fire exits have been blocked on the roof and in the basement.

There were fears that despite D.O.B.’s putting Shaoul on notice, he’ll get extensions to respond during which the work will progress.

“We’re just concerned that ‘delay, delay’ gets them further along,” Stringer told Santulli. “I’m just concerned that they’re good at playing the game. If you smell a rat, I want you to act.”

Assured Santulli, “If they don’t respond in 10 days, we revoke the permit.”

Stetzer of C.B. 3 noted Shaoul was recently caught excavating a trench in the rear yard of 120 St. Mark’s Pl. without a permit.

“It’s the same owner, same work, the plans were missing,” she said, as she scaled a similarly deep trench in 515 E. Fifth St.’s dug out backyard.

Shaoul was found in a second-floor apartment that was being renovated. He started to talk to Santulli and Stringer, but when a Villager reporter and photographer entered, followed by Schapiro, he refused to continue talking.

But afterwards Stringer said Santulli had “stared down” Shaoul.

Mendez recounted how the former tenants in a building next to her own suffered after Shaoul bought it.

“He made five families on 11th St. homeless and I don’t want to see this happen again,” she said. “This owner has mastered the tricks to vacate buildings and put them at market rent. And the borough president and I will watch very closely to make sure that it doesn’t happen again.”

In the case of E. 11th St., Mendez said, the owner’s tactics involved having firefighters do drills in vacant apartments next to occupied apartments.

“He told them which apartments to go into,” Mendez said. “They used those big picks and axes that firefighters have.”

After giving the building an inspection and talking with the tenants, Stringer promised to return.

“There’s a lot of work that has to go into this,” Stringer said. “That’s why the [D.O.B.] Manhattan borough commissioner was here. We’ll be back. It’s not the last stop, it’s only the beginning.”

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