Community Urges Hartley House to Stay in Hell’s Kitchen

Hartley House board member Dodie Gumaer (foreground, in black) and executive director Nicole Cicogna (hand raised) explained why the board didn’t seek public funds. | Photo by Winnie McCroy

BY WINNIE McCROY | Citing a continued need for services and a love of the historic settlement house, community members and representatives from Community Board 4 (CB4) have united to urge the leadership of Hartley House against selling their property at 413 W. 46th St. (btw. Ninth & 10th Aves.) to whichever high-end condo or hotel investor makes the highest bid.

They came together on the evening of March 15 in the community room of 353 W. 30th St. for CB4’s Housing, Health & Human Services (HHHS) Committee meeting to speak with Hartley House executive director Nicole L. Cicogna and her cohorts about fighting to preserve the beloved but beleaguered site, and to stay true to their 120-year-old mission to serve Hell’s Kitchen.

Hartley House is currently on the market via Denham Wolf Real Estate Services, a firm providing consulting, brokerage, and project management services to the nonprofit sector. But HHHS members urged Cicogna to explore alternatives, among them partnering with other organizations to occupy part of the property (thus ensuring a revenue stream), or selling Hartley House to another community organization while moving their mission to a suitable space in one of the area’s new luxury buildings.

“The absolute simplest way to resolve this — by selling your building — doesn’t necessarily help our community,” said HHHS Co-Chair Joe Restuccia. “If we can figure out a way to get you what you need to continue your ongoing mission… while keeping that location for a socially responsible, important community need, that to us is the thing we do well.”

Restuccia gave many examples of how CB4 helped fund failing or crumbling works, among them the renovations of Hudson Guild; the $64M, seven-year renovation of the Irish Arts Center; and the $30M NYPD Police Stables, relocated to the ground floor of the luxury Mercedes House at 550 W. 54th St.

CB4 Says “Let Us Help”
During the meeting, HHHS Board co-chair Barbara Davis expressed concerned that the Hartley House Board of Trustees felt it was too difficult to get government funding to do the extensive repair work.

“Over my 14 years on the [Hartley House] board, maintaining the infrastructure has taken up the greater part of our budget, to the point where it’s hurting the mission,” said Dodie Gumaer. “There’s a lot of consternation on the part of the board members because this is our home.”

HHHS members assured Hartley House they were aware of the board members’  love for the historic home, and that they shared that love — to the point that they were not ready to let them surrender the property and its mission to the annals of history.

But Cicogna said problems with the infrastructure had a deleterious impact on their mission, to the point where they spent most of their time putting out buckets to catch the rain coming through the roof. So about five months ago, the Hartley House board reached out to Denham Wolf, wondering if they should sell one or two of the campus’ buildings to fund their mission.

Since January 1897, Hartley House has taught the residents of Hell’s Kitchen skills including cooking, sewing, housekeeping, hygiene, childcare, and woodworking. Today, their mission includes programming for kids and seniors, including an after-school program, a summer camp, a Kenneth Cole-led Design Lab, a senior meals program, the Home Outreach Program for Elders (HOPE), and Tuesday afternoon Bingo.

These days, Cicogna said, the four-building campus is too big and too shabby for clients to make good use of without a gut renovation — everything from lead paint removal and asbestos abatement to fire protection to security to Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) compliance, including an elevator. She estimated it would require an $18M renovation to get it up to code. Restuccia noted Hartley House had a deeper FAR (floor area ratio) than it was built out to, allowing a little wiggle room during renovations.

Hartley House recently moved into temporary offices at 1441 Broadway (btw. W. 40th & 41st Sts.), and their after-school programs and Bingo moved to Manhattan High School and The Fountain House, respectively, with case management for seniors continuing in clients’  homes.

Now, HHHS and community members are wondering why Hartley House never reached out to them for help, with Restuccia urging them not to walk away from the community, calling their plans to sell a “one-shot deal.”

“This community board has people knocking on our door every year for city budget requests,” Restuccia said. “We work with our city councilmember, who is now Speaker, and the real concern we have with this is that one of the things we have been able to do for the neighborhood is capital budgets. The city in the last 15 years has had such capital funds, it’s amazing. You’re part of our fabric. So why would board members not approach the public sector?”

“They have always been reticent to go after public money, and wanted to remain a privately-funded organization,” Cicogna noted. “It’s been a deliberate decision on the part of the board. But now they are thinking differently.”

Restuccia urged Hartley House to allow CB4 to help them find a more affordable rental space for the next year or two, while securing funds for necessary renovations at the historic location.

“I know the community believes we are running to sell to the highest bidder to build luxury condos there, but there could be someone who comes in and gives us $25M and makes it their home,” Cicogna said. “And we’re talking to a church group that rents space to renovate it and allow us space there; we’re talking to other partners we’ve allowed to have space in Hartley House. So our agenda is not to run out and sell to a luxury condo developer. We love the community and we want to be there.”

Board member Liam Buckley asked that, if a luxury condo developer offered $20M for the place, would they sell? Replied Cicogna, “That is a conversation that will happen between the board and Denham Wolf.”

“That sounds pretty bad,” interjected Restuccia. “Because that’s the board sitting on an island with a consultant that’s going to get paid, as opposed to the whole community being part of a process to save a cherished institution.”  He told Cicogna that the $18 million they needed for renovations was not that much money in today’s real estate climate. If they worked with CB4 and elected officials, they could possibly keep both the buildings and their mission going. Or, they could work with CB4 to get a new location in a luxury tower.

CB4’s Housing, Health & Human Services Committee, with co-chairs Barbara Davis and Joe Restuccia on left. | Photo by Winnie McCroy

Hell’s Kitchen Not Just for the Rich
During the course of the HHHS Meeting, committee member Delores Rubin expressed concern about the domino effect that might occur if Hartley House left the area it had worked so hard to help over the past 125 years, even if some of the people moving into Hell’s Kitchen now did not need the same kind of services as before.

But during public comments, fifth generation Hell’s Kitchen resident Michelle O’Connell Diaz, who organized the March 3 candlelight vigil in front of Hartley House, said that Hell’s Kitchen was still a working-class neighborhood, with kids and seniors who valued the programs it offered them. She, her mother, and her daughter all attended Hartley House.

“Those buildings belong to us; we have been there for generations,” said Diaz, breaking into tears. “We do care, and it’s important these services continue. As much as gentrification happens and rich people move in, there is still us. That space is sacred ground for every person who has crossed their threshold. Those buildings were created for the children of the Hell’s Kitchen community. By selling it, you are circumventing the original mission. The poor are still there.”

Chana Widawski, of the neighborhood organization Hell’s Kitchen Commons, echoed Diaz’s sentiments that Hartley House belonged to the community, and should not be sold.

“For 120 years, it has been serving the community, and it’s part of the history not only of Hell’s Kitchen, but of the Settlement House Movement and immigration in New York, and it’s critical that continues,” Widawski told this publication by phone.

At the March 15 meeting, fourth-generation Hell’s Kitchen resident Joan Griffenkranz added, “To you it’s just bricks and mortar. But I used to drop off my books and head up the fire escape stairs of Hartley House to paint, build, or cook. You don’t have the heart we do; for those of us who grew up in Hell’s Kitchen, this is killing them. And if you would have just asked the neighbors, they would have done the [renovation] work for you.”

By the end of the meeting, HHHS members voted to send a letter to the Board of Trustees of Hartley House, asking them to pause before making any decision to sell; to allow elected officials and CB4 to come up with a rescue plan that preserves this historic, important neighborhood institution and repurposes it for a similar use, while Hartley House decides which of the area’s 17 new luxury condos they might fit into, so they can provide services for the community while securing an income stream that will allow them to operate into today’s world.

Cicogna agreed, telling this publication, “It’s a continuing conversation that we’ve been having with Corey Johnson’s office and other elected officials about saving the house and helping us explore all our options for the property. It is a board decision, but I think any good action deserves a fight.”

“My colleagues and I are working feverishly to find a solution that will prevent the loss of the historic Hartley House buildings, while also ensuring that the Hartley House organization survives and thrives for another 100 years,” said New York City Council Speaker Corey Johnson. “I thank Hartley House for coming to the table and working with us to achieve these goals. I want Hartley House to know that we are there for them as a community.”

Johnson’s office will meet again with Hartley House on April 10 at City Hall, to work toward solutions.

Community members Joan Griffenkranz (with flag patch on jacket) and Michelle O’Connell Diaz, who cried and slumped down in her chair after sharing her concerns. | Photo by Winnie McCroy

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