Tenants Claim Delays in Restoration of Basic Services After Flood

With the elevator out of service, Cathy Drew climbs the seven flights to her apartment. Carl Glassman/Tribeca Trib

After winding her way by flashlight up the dark stairs of 67 Vestry St., Juki Weinfeld walked into the dimness of her living room and sat down, still shivering in coat and knit cap.

“It’s warmer outside than in here,” she said, rubbing her hands together. 

And so it was for Weinfeld, an artist, and other tenants who did not consider evacuation an option in a building that lacked electricity and heat for weeks after the storm.

“I was in bed at 7:30 with three hats and two layers, a down blanket and a Kindle,” said Weinfeld, 65, who slept in the cold apartment for the first 10 days after the storm. “So between 7:30 and 10:30 I read in bed and that was it.”

Sixty Seven Vestry Street is one of several buildings in northern Tribeca and among many others in Lower Man­hattan that lacked essential services because of flooding from Hurricane Sandy. Yet because of work, finances or a desire to keep their homes secure, some tenants refused to completely evacuate.

All say that the difficult conditions in their building should have ended sooner.
A remnant of “old” Tribeca, 67 Ves­try still has many artists and other crea­tive tenants who moved to the neighborhood in the 1970s and ’80s, their modest rents now protected by rent stabilization.

“These are live-work spaces. People have their lives here, apart from sleeping and eating,” said painter Paul Pagk, 50, keeping warm in his studio with the four heaters he had bought. After the weather turned cold, he and his family slept elsewhere, but he returned to the building daily. “I needed to paint at least an hour or two a day just to not feel completely dislocated,” he said.

After the storm, the tenants say, there was a flurry of work on buildings around them—but not on theirs.

“There were generators and dumpsters and people in hazmat suits throwing things out,” said Jaime Viñas, an 18-year tenant. “In the meantime, we felt like our building was stagnating.”

It took a complaint, filed in housing court, they say, to get meaningful action from landlord Aby Rosen, who is trying to sell the building, and from his management company, Classic Realty.

“Because of the rent stabilization, there certainly is no urgency to bring the building back to livable condition as quickly as possible,” said Roland Gebhardt, 73, who runs an architectural design business out of his loft.

“Certainly not without the encouragement of the stick of the law.”

The management was slow to fully pump out the flooded basement and to return calls from Con Ed so that power could be restored, according to the tenants. They also allege that many days went by when no work at all was being done at the building.

Neil Ritter, a vice president and lawyer for Classic Realty, denied the tenants’ charges, saying that he worked hard to resolve difficult conditions caused by Hurricane Sandy and the nor’easter storm that followed.

“I have personally spent most of my working days and weekends dealing with issues and do so to the best of my abilities,” he said in a phone interview.
Ritter said that work was impeded because “people are stretched thin” by the heavy demand for repairs. “I can fully appreciate the frustration on some level, but we are doing our best to get services re­stored,” he said in the Nov. 26 interview.

On Wednesday, Nov. 28, two days before the Housing Court hearing on Classic Realty’s alleged foot-dragging, workers arrived to clean and paint flood-swept common areas in the building and install a temporary boiler, which began bringing heat into the apartments on the 29th. The elevator remained out of commission in the nine-story building.

In Housing Court the next day, a judge adjourned the case until January.

Several tenants said that Rosen, who owns the Seagram and Lever House buildings among many others, has wanted to see their building empty from the time he bought it in 2005. Before putting the building on the market, he had reportedly hoped to demolish it and build condos. (The landlord did not return a call for comment for this article.)

Rosen, chairman of the New York State Council on the Arts and a major art collector, declined to renew the leases on market-rate tenants. Now 11 of the building’s 25 units are kept vacant. The owner made news in 2007 when he evicted director and playwright Robert Wilson, who had lived and worked in the building for 34 years.

“Before Hurricane Sandy we had Hurricane Aby,” quipped Cathy Drew, 69, director of the River Project and a tenant in the building since 1978.

Drew, who walks with the help of a  cane, periodically returns to her apartment, making the slow, laborious climb up seven flights. She is among several tenants for whom age or health will make it difficult or impossible to stay in their apartments without a working elevator. “I can’t carry anything up the stairs and it takes me forever,” she said.

Ritter said that all of the elevator’s wiring had been submerged and needed to be replaced.

How long will that take?

“I don’t know at this point,” he said.