Ribbons spanning all the colors of the rainbow hung from the gray walkway and black fences enclosing the trees perched in front of the salmon-pink Rivington House, a former public school that re-opened in the 1990s to assist individuals with HIV and AIDS. Scrawled on the ribbons in black marker were phrases and stories in support of the Rivington House in English, Chinese and Spanish. Each ribbon was dedicated to a specific bed number at Rivington House in honor of the individuals that the center served over the past two decades.
It’s too late to save Rivington House, the former HIV treatment facility that a non-profit nursing home operator unexpectedly flipped to a luxury developer after the city quietly lifted a deed restriction. But a bill signed into law today should do something to prevent buildings designated for community use from becoming luxury condos.
The new law requires the city to maintain a searchable online database of properties with deed restrictions, and forces developers who want to have them lifted to inform their local City Council member, community board, and borough president. The law requires the mayor, a specially formed committee, and the Department of City Planning to review any such requests, and approve them with the mayor’s personal sign-off only if they’re deemed to be in the city’s best interest. While there had been talk of requiring the city’s stringent Uniform Land Use Review Procedure in such scenarios, the new law stops short of that.
As members of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s administration faced questions regarding the Rivington House debacle in a contentious City Council hearing this afternoon, de Blasio’s office released a none-too-subtly timed press release announcing a plan to build a new affordable senior housing and health care facility on the Lower East Side. The new development is designed to replace essential services the neighborhood lost after the nursing home at 45 Rivington Street was sold to a luxury condominium developer under controversial circumstances in 2015.
East Houston street is currently a hotbed of development, as any casual stroll down the street will reveal. Endless scaffolding, boarded-up properties, fences, and signs announcing new things to come line the sidewalks of lots previously occupied by local shops, community facilities, and residential buildings. Although a 2008 rezoning was implemented, ostensibly to preserve the existing buildings and the affordable housing that many of them contained, developers who bought up a sliver of land at 255 East Houston Street may get a special rezoning through of their own.
In a statement released after the press conference, Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer argued that changes to deed restrictions (which limit how a property can be used) should have to be approved via the city’s Uniform Land Use and Review Process (ULURP), which requires multiple city agencies to sign off on certain projects. “We lost Rivington House because the deed restriction change was managed by the wrong agencies in a bad process. The best way to fix this is to handle these land use changes the same tried-and-true way we’ve handled other meaningful land use changes for years, with transparency and public input.”
Some background on the issue: 45 Rivington, a former schoolhouse turned nursing home, was subject to a deed restriction established in 1992 that limited the building to non-profit usage. Although Allure Group, the nursing-home operator that took over the building in 2014, is a for-profit organization, it was understood that the building would remain as some kind of medical facility for the neighborhood’s many seniors.
But last year, the city controversially lifted the non-profit deed restriction and failed to set down any conditions for the building’s use. The building was then sold to private developers, who plan to convert it into luxury condos. Predictably, the outcry has been significant.
Last week the city’s Department of Investigations released a report accusing Mayor Bill de Blasio’s administration of incompetence and finding a “complete lack of accountability within City government regarding deed restriction removals.” Furthermore, the report found that the Rivington House’s deed restriction removal was handled by a number of agencies that weren’t directly in charge of determining land usage. Yesterday, the Neighbors to Save Rivington House, a community activist group, said in a statement that “the fact that the deed restrictions were lifted without any notice to our electeds or Community Board 3, and that there was NO chance for community discussion and comment is scandalous.”
City Council member Margaret Chin and President Brewer agreed that it was problematic that the deed restrictions were lifted in a manner that completely escaped pubic notice and that lacked any formalized process. In a letter to the City Planning Commission, Brewer and Chin proposed legislation that would create a searchable database of properties with city-imposed deed restrictions, and called for a codified, “public and transparent process” for the lifting or modifying of the restrictions. The pols are also seeking “a more formal process for lifting deed restrictions on formerly city-owned property.” This way, local community boards, borough presidents, city council members, and members of the public could be informed and react quickly. Chin has already introduced this legislation to City Hall in May.
However, Brewer and Chin stated in their letter that while “these steps are necessary,” they “no longer believe they are sufficient.”
“Rather than sticking with a broken system that took Rivington House from the community, or creating another system from scratch, it makes sense to utilize a proven process that for decades has guided thousands of land use changes,” Council Member Chin said in a statement at today’s press conference. “By making deed restriction changes subject to ULURP, we will introduce transparency and public input to an inconsistent process that has failed to protect and preserve significant community assets, such as Rivington House.”
Under ULURP, projects involving certain changes such as rezoning, transfer of city property, and adjustments to the city map must be approved by multiple agencies, including the revelant community board, the borough president, the City Planning Commission, the City Council, and the mayor’s office. In their letter to the City Planning Commission, Brewer and Chin invoked a section of the New York City Charter that gives the commission power to determine, with the City Council’s support, what can and cannot be subject to ULURP, meaning that deed restriction removals could very well fall under its jurisdiction as well.
The elected officials urged the Planning Commission to adopt this proposal and present it to the City Council to prevent future losses of community-relevant buildings such as the Rivington House.
Correction: The original version of this post misstated the term Uniform Land Use Review Procedure for Universal Land Use Review Procedure.
Public officials are demanding, in louder and louder voices, to know why and how the city quietly allowed a Lower East Side building once reserved for non-profit use to be turned into luxury housing. Today, local politicians gathered to push for stronger transparency and oversight, to prevent it from happening again.
The former schoolhouse at 45 Rivington was operated by VillageCare as an AIDS/HIV treatment facility, under a deed restriction established in 1992 that limited the building to non-profit usage. Since the HIV crisis has dimmed in the Lower East Side, the facility was no longer needed at capacity. At the end of 2014, VillageCare sought to sell it to a for-profit nursing-home operator, Allure Group, with local officials’ understanding that it would remain some kind of medical facility for the general population, likely for the many seniors in the neighborhood.