Volume 78 - Number 31 / December 31, 2008 - January 6, 2009
West and East Village, Chelsea, Soho, Noho, Little Italy, Chinatown and Lower East Side, Since 1933
Villager photo by J.B. Nicholas
Joe Campbell, a Jane-West resident with a pacemaker, which is sensitive to electricity, points to exposed electrical wiring hanging down in a hallway.
Jane-West tenants wage big fight to hold on to tiny rooms
By Roslyn Kramer
Another episode in the tumultuous riverfront history of the Jane-West Hotel is heading toward a resolution next month. Tenants of the ravaged building are defying a development scheme that would overhaul the landmarked, former sailors’ refuge into a tourist hotel and put present occupants out on the street.
The owners have allegedly been forcing out existing tenants for the past year while they renovate the tiny units of a grim, single-room occupancy, S.R.O., hotel into tiny but cheerful rooms for bargain-hunting tourists willing to make do with a bathroom down the hall. (A few of the minutely sized rooms will be combined into larger rooms that qualify as merely small and will each have a bathroom.)
Currently, long-term tenants pay about $200 a month. Transients pay $99 a night — and that’s what the new owners would like more of.
Ultimately, the multinamed Jane-West Hotel (that’s the phonebook listing; it’s also called the Jane Hotel or Riverview Hotel) is slated to be another addition to its owners’ Downtown hotel and restaurant empire.
“We hope to resurrect an authentic slice of idiosyncratic New York, bathrooms down the hall and all,” said Sean MacPherson, a co-owner of the Jane-West, on the Hotel Chatter Web site.
More telling of the present tenants’ welfare, or lack of it, is another statement posted on the Web site: “...[T]hey would like to begin the process of removing any and all long-term residents, most of which are homeless, drug addicts and drunks.... They will have a very difficult time removing most of the long-term stays, especially since there are strict laws prohibiting the harassment of such individuals.”
Exactly how many rooms the hotel originally had before the makeover began is unknown, but the remaining tenants say about 100 tenants have left, and not all of them voluntarily. Those remaining, about 50, allege management has used, among other tactics, the ploy of refusing to accept rent checks and then claiming tenants failed to pay rent, as a way of trimming the number of tenants.
But the Jane-West residents are not going quietly. Fighting back, several rambunctious tenants have become quick studies in tenant rights and landmark law. Remaining tenants now rattle around the 100-plus-room hotel (the actual number of rooms is in flux because of renovations) dodging construction workers, dust and exposed electrical wires while the rooms’ gloomy, chipped-paint interiors are upgraded. Once vacant, rooms get a fresh paint job and a new dark-wood-veneer door. Nearby, still-inhabited quarters get the residue: thick coatings of dust seeping in from halls where work is going on. Exactly what’s in that dust is another matter.
Still, it’s an ingenious transformation of what was built in 1909 as an unpretentious, temporary home for seamen in distress. A beacon light once shone from the building’s lighthouse-shaped tower; the structure overlooks a Hudson River waterfront once filled with docks where the seamen worked. But undoubtedly the Jane-West’s most distinguished guests were survivors of the Titanic who were taken to the hotel. The building at various times also has been home to a YMCA and a theater.
And now it’s a theater of another sort: a project by two of the brightest names in Downtown gentrification — MacPherson and his partner, Eric Goode. The two investors are also involved in the Waverly Inn restaurant on Bank St., the Maritime Hotel on Ninth Ave. and 15th St. in Chelsea and the Bowery Hotel.
The more energetic of the Jane-West Hotel’s tenants have taken their case to the sidewalks in front of Goode-MacPherson properties. At the Waverly Inn (whose several co-owners include Vanity Fair editor Carter Graydon) they waved picket signs (“Being Rich Does Not Excuse Bad Behavior,” one declared in a Miss Manners tone). One Jane-West demonstrator, Patricia Oltremare, who also goes by the name Soleil, picketed alone on Christmas Eve.
“Who would issue permits to do this to human beings?” she asked indignantly last week, an arm waving at the myriad outrages inflicted on the tenants: bedbugs; incessant banging; rats.
“Sparks fly all over,” she said. “I’ve called the Fire Department.” She has also called other city agencies.
“Why couldn’t they relocate us to parts of the hotel where no work was going on?” Soleil asked. And what’s more, local elected officials have sidestepped complaints, tenants charge.
Sometimes, serious incidents occurred that looked like vandalism but could not be proven. Some cases raised the possibility that the landlord “might have given incentives to some tenants to harass other tenants,” they say. In one such incident, a woman was injured under suspicious circumstances to the point she could no longer work, said Soleil. The woman landed up in court for nonpayment of rent and now is one of the tenants who drifted away.
Another woman, disoriented enough to wind up in the streets, said Soleil, needs a guardian to look after her rights. One evicted tenant — a cab driver — left behind a copy of the Constitution taped to his still-drab-gray door, which as of last week had yet to be renovated.
“The owners keep sending us notices that they’re doing the best for tenants and will make their lives much more comfortable once renovations are completed,” Soleil said. “But people have lost jobs going to court,” trying to prevent being thrown out of their rooms.
“Many of the people removed for nonpayment were ready to pay their rent,” Edward A Mermelstein, the tenants’ lawyer, said.
Initially, the owners were able to get around the law that requires developers involved in S.R.O. hotels to get a certificate of nonharassment, constituting proof from tenants that harassment has not occurred. Tenants charge the developers dodged this critical check by going to court without telling the tenants and saying there were no dissenters.
Tenants are beginning to feel they’re making some headway, however. They carried their dispute to the Hotel Chatter Web site, stating they were being harassed. And they finally have a court date to counter the owners’ claim that harassment did not occur. Early next month, the Jane-West residents will finally get to tell a court, for example, of the constant hammering; most rooms are the exact length of a bed, so there’s no escaping loud, constant banging in the narrow corridors. Nor is it possible to avoid the dust, the electrical wiring hanging from the ceilings, the bedbugs and the scalding water the tenants say they are subjected to. And then there was a flood of filthy water from overflowing toilets that the tenants had to dam up and form a bucket line to remove. The aftermath: mold, because “management never did clean up,” a tenant asserted, showing photos he had taken.
More recently, Soleil announced she had reported scalding water to the state Division of Housing and Community Renewal.
“Scalding water alternates with cold,” she said.
Meanwhile, there’s the crumbling exterior to worry about, although addressing this, too, seems to be beyond the capacities of enforcement agencies.
“The owners are being irresponsible with a historic trust,” said Jean A. Winget, a tenant who has taken on the job of plowing through landmarks law. “They should have fixed the facade; debris is falling on people. If you buy a historic building, you should take responsibility for it.” It may require hiring an architect specializing in historic renovation to resolve the problem.
Tom Goode and his roommate, Sandy, were offered $10,000 to move. But they refused it, feeling it was too paltry. On another occasion, when management announced it was coming into their room, they simply barricaded themselves inside.
Tenants are preparing for a Jan. 9 showdown on the certificate of nonharassment.
“We’ve asked for a review of the process, especially since there were several people with harassment complaints,” said attorney Mermelstein.
Joe Campbell has lived at the hotel 31 years. Fifteen years ago, he quit alcohol, thanks to a detox program then run at the hotel. Because he wears a pacemaker, he must move carefully through the hotel to avoid contact with exposed electrical wiring. He also wonders about the Village community’s reception of the two or three bars planned for the hotel; one is promoted as a gathering place serving breakfast to hotel occupants, who can also escape the physical constraints of their miniscule rooms there.
“It’s a residential neighborhood,” Campbell noted. “Families don’t need drunks or a club.”
There’s a lot riding on that Jan. 9 appearance contesting the nonharassment certificate. But a lot has already been accomplished, and the tenants who watch from the sidelines know it.
“For you, anything,” an elderly resident said to Soleil, returning from a shopping trip with organic eggs she had picked up for the newly minted tenant activist. Soleil beamed.