Volume 74, Number 26 | October 27 - November 03 , 2004

Beyond journalism: A community gumshoe on Morton St.

By Judith Seigel

Nancy Reardon’s article, “Neighbors disagree whether building is a problem” (Villager, Oct. 6) about our protests against operations at 66 Morton St., including the recent “Self Spa,” made me think “That girl goofed.” She ignored our most important points in favor of statements by “officials” that don’t apply. (And yes, I will prove that.)

Then I showed the article to my daughter, also a journalist (currently teaching journalism at New York University), who pronounced it “very good,” an “A,” saying Reardon “did everything right.” Daughter recalled an incident from her days at the Chicago Tribune, when her editor, finding her poring over a stack of documents, demanded to know what she was doing. Trying to figure out who’s right in an environmental case, she explained. Editor raised his voice: “That’s not how journalism is done,” he declared. “And that’s not your job. Your job is to contact the authorities and quote them.”

My job, on the other hand, is to correct the misinformation set afloat by “authorities” — on a good day, from my own files. The Villager quotes Albert Bennett, president of the Morton Street Block Association, saying we’ve had “few problems” with # 66 since 1993 when then-block association president Miriam Lee wrote a letter of protest to the Mayor’s Office of Film, Theatre and Broadcasting. I quote the furious letter Bennett himself wrote in 1997, protesting “three location shoots within a 5-1/2 week period [with] intolerable” conditions and “continuous noise from crew members and machines...still at it at midnight”; there’s also my anguished letter of 2000 about another major shoot, “the worst yet;” and Mary Sampson’s about an out-of-control production crew in 2002 (and that’s just what got circulated).

Bennett, in Reardon’s article, then goes on to call me a “one-woman crusade.” I revere one-woman crusades (the power behind some of the world’s greatest achievements), but at the Oct. 4 block association meeting, we presented statements from some 15 of our dozens of supporters. One homeowner wrote, “What’s most offensive...is an extremely wealthy woman, who doesn’t need the revenue, who has let that beautiful house run down for years and rents it out to make large sums of money at great discomfort to people who live on the block. She could sell that house in a minute for $5 million. As for the Self event, now we’re getting people ringing our doorbell and asking if we’re the spa.”

Several members protested having “to compete with commercial vehicles for parking;” another noted “paying an extremely high rent and wanting to live in peace;” a writer working at home cited “the trucks and noise [that go] on and on.” Hudson St. and St Luke’s Pl. also suffer. The Hudson Grocery at # 428 says, “We lose a lot of money when there’s an event at that house [vehicles park bumper to bumper so customers can’t get to the curb]. It’s not fair: We pay a lot of taxes and we depend on business from the street.” (I omit other comments so as not to jeopardize our reconciliation with the M.S.B.A.)

At the meeting, Alan Wynroth asked for a “sense of community;” Mary Sampson pointed out that an illegal operation could lose insurance coverage; I outlined the certificate-of-occupancy rules; and Wayne Conti acted as peacemaker for both sides. Ultimately we agreed that Neighbors of 66 and the M.S.B.A. would work together to see the law enforced.

Which brings us to the city’s “spokespersons.” The Villager quoted Jennifer Givner of the Department of Buildings saying that lack of a certificate of occupancy doesn’t make operations at # 66 illegal because “properties built before 1938...do not require these certificates.”

Wrong. If a building has been substantially altered since 1938, it does need a C of O. 66 Morton (built 1854) was humongously altered at least twice. When I moved to the street in 1957, it was a Class B rooming house with 24 units. It came on the market circa 1966 and Lew Sarasy sold it. However, when the buyer’s wife saw it, the deal collapsed. The place was grim, but Phyllis Sarasy had a keen eye and saw the possibilities. The Sarasies bought the house themselves and spent a year bringing it back to life. I was at the housewarming, when it glowed with hand-rubbed mahogany banisters, newly hung chandeliers and freshly painted original trim. Alas, the Sarasies changed plans, moved to San Francisco and sold the house to Mary Kaplan in 1969. Without a C of O.

H.P.D.’s Building Registration & Violations section at NYC.gov shows active violations for # 66 starting 4/20/1968 with: “Premises have been vacant since 9/8/67 [and] cannot be reoccupied until a new certificate of occupancy has been obtained” [violation #32693730], continuing on into the ’80s and ’90s in similar vein.

Kaplan never did live there, but left the house vacant, untended and falling into ruin for decades. On 8/2/84, however, her architect got a permit to “restore building to 2-family use...eliminate MD [multiple dwelling] Classification [and] obtain new CO” (D.O.B. alteration #1010). But the job was never signed off, C of O not obtained. (Why? I have a hunch, but ...not now.)

Givner also told Reardon, “since 80 percent of the tax lot is zoned as a commercial district... 20 of every 25 feet... can be legally used for commercial purposes.”

Double no. The zone is C1-6, limited to “public service establishments serving small areas [for] local consumer needs... primarily retail stores and personal service establishments,” such as barbershops and restaurants. In other words, movie production, fashion shoots, parties and events like the Self Spa are still not legal. Not to mention that commercial use requires a commercial filing. As Tom Mascialino, deputy chief of the Manhattan Department of Buildings, told me as I was trying to file a complaint earlier this month, since she’s using the house commercially, Kaplan should be paying partly commercial tax. (Tax for 80 percent of the house could be more than $50,000/year.)

Which is another of our complaints. Kaplan exploits our neighborhood with the noise, congestion and general disruption of her business, but pays taxes as for a little, three-family residence, taxable assessment $113,258.

There’s much much more, but I run out of space. So, with thanks to David Reck, chairperson of Community Board 2’s Zoning Committee, for advice and info that helped us get this far, I close with another example of “law enforcement.” Nancy Reardon had called me to say D.O.B. told her they wouldn’t padlock # 66 because it’s legal (see above). Then Kate Seely-Kirk of City Councilmember Christine Quinn’s office called to say she’d gotten a response to the complaint her office had filed, saying that # 66 had been padlocked on Sept. 22. Having seen us present the problem to C.B. 2 on Sept. 23, however, she figured that was untrue.

Mascialino, Manhattan D.O.B. deputy chief, confirmed that the complaint had gone to the wrong division. Before it got to the right division, the spa was over and the house had been emptied right down to the paint on the walls. Four days later, two envelopes appeared taped to the door of the empty shell, a “notice to call for inspection” and “notice of violation and hearing.”

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