Where Buildings Fell As Hotel Rose, a New Condo and Calls For Justice

89 bowery2Mel BaileyAn empty lot at 89 Bowery may soon get a commercial condo building.

Tenants of a Hester Street building that was leveled as a result of the new Wyndham Garden‘s construction will demand compensation during a rally Thursday. Meanwhile, another building that was razed as the 18-story hotel went up is finally being replaced.

The tenement at 128 Hester Street was demolished in 2009 after it was destabilized by construction of the hotel next door. A lawsuit brought by the tenants of the building late last year alleges that the owner allowed building violations to pile up and ignored an “enormous volume of evidence of grossly substandard and hazardous conditions.” The building’s walls were damaged in part because of construction of the Wyndham Garden at 93 Bowery, Department of Buildings records indicate. The tenants were ordered to vacate the building in August of 2009 and it was demolished in November.

The tenants allege that William Su, an owner of both the hotel and of 128 Hester Street, intentionally allowed the tenement’s condition to decline. “It’s my belief, and my clients’ belief that [Mr. Su and his partners] acquired 128 Hester knowing that there were some serious violations, structurally,” said John Gorman, their lawyer. “This group acquired 128 Hester, not to re-inhabit, not to maintain it, but to avoid any interference with the construction of the hotel.”

In the years since the vacate order, a non-profit organization, Asian Americans for Equality, helped tenants file a petition with the New York Division of Homes and Community Renewal, which in 2010 ordered the building owner to pay his former tenants a stipend as well as moving expenses.

But Mr. Su hasn’t produced the money. Instead, the agency decided to reconsider its initial judgment for reasons that remain unclear, according to Mr. Gorman. “I do not understand why after two levels of review the D.H.C.R. decides hey, maybe lets take another look at this; meanwhile my clients are dislodged without a penny of relocation benefits,” said the tenants’ lawyer, who estimated that they were owed around $800,000. “It bothers me to no end.”

According to Mr. Su’s attorney, Stuart Klein, the agency realized it had erred and withdrew the claim.

Meanwhile, Asian Americans for Equality has continued to facilitate conferences between the owners and tenants. The organization’s director, Peter Gee, said that Mr. Su has only attended one of the four meetings. Mr. Su’s lawyer said he was only invited to one. This Thursday, A.A.F.E. will host a rally in hopes of finally winning tenants the compensation to which they feel they’re entitled.

Screen Shot 2013-02-25 at 6.07.56 PMFrom a flyer for the protest.

“This remains an important issue because it has been over three years and there is still no resolution for the tenants of 128 Hester Street,” said Mr. Gee. “They have not received the fair and just compensation they deserve from the owners.” Mr. Gee expects 30 to 40 people to attend the rally in front of the Wyndham Hotel, including one or two of the families that were forced from their homes.

Mr. Su confirmed that he was an owner of the Wyndham Garden and an investor in 128 Hester Street but declined to comment further. His attorney believes that if anyone should be held accountable it’s the plaintiffs, not his client. “I think they are a greater threat to the community than my client who put up a beautiful hotel — he turned an old rat-infested theater into something really important,” said Mr. Klein, referring to the shuttered movie theater that the hotel replaced. “I’d like to see the A.A.F.E. do that.”

Mr. Klein claimed that “the A.A.F.E. are the largest landowners in Chinatown” and noted that his client has proposed that the non-profit house the displaced tenants in some of its own buildings, however the organization won’t budge.

That’s because a strict federal process restricts how and when prospective tenants can be placed in the organization’s affordable housing units, Mr. Gee explained. “At the end of the day they are the ones that are responsible for taking care of their tenants,” he said of 128 Hester LLC.

The lawsuit filed in October names 10 plaintiffs. A deposition was supposed to be held this week but the defendants’ lawyer has asked that it be postponed until April.

Meanwhile, Elmhurst-based developer Steve Cheung has applied for a permit to build an eight-story commercial condominium at 89 Bowery, The Local has learned. The plot, which for years has been a vacant lot, was home to an office building that was also destabilized by the hotel’s construction, according to Department of Buildings records. It was demolished in 2008.

Mr. Cheung said he would begin construction immediately after approval of the application, which was filed last week.

Since 89 Bowery was a commercial rather than a residential building before it was razed, its fate hasn’t stirred the sort of controversy that its neighbor at 128 Hester Street has. But David Mulkins of the Bowery Alliance of Neighbors had concerns about the new building.

“In addition to the moral issue, there is also an aesthetic consideration,” he said. “89 Bowery is in the most well-preserved stretch of the Bowery Historic District which was recently named to the National Register of Historic Places. Tourism is increasing in this neighborhood because of its unique low-rise character and diversity qualities that high-rise buildings will obliterate.”

Mr. Mulkins called the Wyndham Garden “an eyesore and a viscous symbol of the ill-regard some developers and architects have for the neighborhood.”