Volume 73, Number 50 | April 21 - 27, 2004

Westbeth residents demand administrative records

By Albert Amateau

A group of Westbeth residents is demanding all documents relating to the administration of the West Village artists’ complex, including commercial and residential leases, government subsidies and lists of residents.

Jack Lester, a lawyer for the group, sent a letter on April 14 to the nonprofit Westbeth Corp. Housing Development Fund Co., Inc., which administers Westbeth, and to the Westbeth Artists Residents’ Council, Inc., the tenant association. He said he expects a reply by May 10.

“This is like a freedom-of-information request,” explained Lester, “and if we are denied the information we intend to file a suit in State Supreme Court.”

Lester said a group of more than 60 residents engaged him to get Westbeth records from January 1989 to the present “to ensure that Westbeth is governed democratically with full disclosure of its activities, policies and finances.”

Indeed, three Westbeth residents, Jessie McNabb, Martin Lowenstein and John Silver, have already declared themselves potential plaintiffs in the suit that Lester said he would file if the information were not forthcoming.
Residents of the 13-building, one-square-block complex, converted in 1968 from the old Bell Laboratories into a middle-income artists’ colony, have had a 26 percent rent increase phased in over three years beginning in 2002. The complex also has severe maintenance issues, including leaking roofs, elevator problems and work on the facades to comply with the city building code.

Ben Green, president since May 2002 of the nonprofit housing company board that runs Westbeth, noted that the board changed the longtime management company, TUC, after many years and engaged a new company, Argo Management, to run the complex. “I don’t know if they have all their records available,” said Green.

George Cominskie, president of the Westbeth Artists Residents’ Council, which has five representatives on the 15-seat board that runs Westbeth, said he was surprised at the request. “We had our monthly meeting recently with 75 residents attending and no one came forward asking for the information, and we’ve never told anyone they couldn’t have it.”

However, McNabb, a member of the group seeking Westbeth records, said residents have not been fully informed about the operation of the complex. “Everybody has to know what’s been going on,” she said last week. “We now find that after spending $500,000 on roof repairs there is yet another part of the roof that needs to be replaced,” she said.

At a meeting at the end of 2002, residents expressed the fear that the board of directors intended to take Westbeth out of the federally funded Section 8 rental program and convert the complex’s 383 apartments and studios into a private co-op. While the issue of privatization has been a controversy for several years, Green last year said the board was not considering such a move.

Many residents were upset two years ago when the board refused to renew the lease of the Westbeth Theater Center, run for many years by Arnold Engelmann, to make way for the Actors’ Studio of New School University, which agreed to pay a higher rent.

McNabb said last week that while rents were soaring for artists’ live-work space, the board had failed to find tenants for valuable commercial space on the 12th and 13th floors of the complex at 463 West St. She also said that there was “rampant” illegal subletting to non-artists.

“We feel this is the only way to get everybody to fess up,” McNabb added, referring to the formal request for records and the threat of a lawsuit.

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