Rivington rally’s cry: Meet with us, Mayor

Melissa Aase, executive director of University Settlement, was part of the human chain around the former Rivington House at last Wednesday’s rally. Photos by Tequila Minsky

BY SYDNEY PEREIRA | Community activists reignited the fight to save Rivington House last Thursday evening. Led by the Neighbors to Save Rivington House, dozens of activists chalked slogans on the sidewalk and hung ribbons with messages to support the return of the former nursing home and hospice for people with H.I.V. / AIDS. At the end of the event in the sweltering evening, activists surrounded the building with yellow caution tape that read “GENTRIFICATION IN PROGRESS.”

“We don’t intend for this P.R. nightmare to ever go away until you reach some kind of resolution with this community,” said K Webster, a Lower East Sider since the 1970s and member of Neighbors to Save Rivington House. “Our biggest goal is to have it returned en masse to the community.”

Webster’s “you” was directed at Mayor Bill de Blasio.

Located in a former public school building, Rivington House first opened as an AIDS treatment facility in the early 1990s. It was among the first hospice centers for H.I.V. / AIDS patients in the country. Later, the nursing care center would house patients with dementia and Alzheimer’s disease.

But in 2015, the deed restriction that required the building to remain a nonprofit nursing home was quietly lifted by the Allure Group, as outlined in a 161-page July 2016 report from the Department of Investigation. It was a scandal that rocked the Lower East Side neighborhood and has dogged the mayor ever since.

The building’s original owners, VillageCare, sold it to the Allure Group in early 2015 for $28 million. Allure then paid the city $16 million to remove the restriction that kept the building as a nonprofit nursing home. This sort of payment — representing a percentage of the property’s value — is usually made to the city in order to lift a deed restriction. (However, in this case, the property’s value was greatly underestimated — and the payment was millions too low — given that the property would ultimately be slated for high-end residential development.)

Neighbors had been under the impression Allure would at least keep the building as a for-profit nursing home. But within months, in February 2016, Allure sold it for $116 million to luxury developers Slate Property Group and China Vanke.

The building has since been shuttered. Last summer, Mayor Bill de Blasio promised to hold a meeting between the luxury condo developers and the community, but the meeting has yet to happen. Similarly, de Blasio has also failed to meet with community stakeholders and Councilmember Carlina Rivera about another local former school building, the old P.S. 64 (former CHARAS / El Bohio), that was sold to a private developer, albeit 20 years ago, but that activists want returned to a community use. In that case, the mayor announced while campaigning for re-election last year that the city was “interested in reacquiring” the building.

A spokesperson for Slate Property Group, Evan Thies, said the Rivington House developers have met with community leaders, including Councilmember Margaret Chin, and will continue to do so.

City Comptroller Scott Stringer said the city should simply take the old school building away from the developer at this point.

“The building should’ve been maintained as a nursing facility,” Stringer said, “and there was a terrible bait and switch and terrible dereliction of duty by city officials.

“The city should proactively give this facility back and get out from under what was basically a bait and switch in the first place,” Stringer said. “So we continue to come out here and protest, and it also shows that without [an] affordable housing plan that really speaks to issues of healthcare and also true affordability, then the city is going to continue to gentrify and become unaffordable for the very people who moved to the Lower East Side when no one wanted to live here and built this community.”

People wrote their hopes and wishes for the former nursing home property on ribbons that were tied to the railway of its ramp.

During the height of the Rivington House scandal, Jim Capalino, a City Hall lobbyist hired by VillageCare to remove the deed restriction, told The Villager that just a fraction of the facility’s 219 beds were being used because of advances in AIDS treatment. (Capalino’s contract with VillageCare ended in late 2014, prior to the lifting of the deed restriction.)

“You modify a facility — you don’t close it,” Stringer said. “The list is endless in terms of the needs of a community as it relates to healthcare. There’s a tremendous pressure on the healthcare system in this city.”

“Look around — we have 60 homeless people a night sleeping in this park,” added Webster, referring to Sara D. Roosevelt Park across the street. “If you wanna be rich, that’s fine. But you can’t do it on the backs of the most vulnerable people.”

Community activists contended that shrinking full-time care facilities like Rivington House is wreaking havoc on families — who end up separated from each other since nursing homes are located in far-away neighborhoods where space is available. Sally Roldan, who works in special-needs services at University Settlement, spoke at the rally moments before she headed off on a two-hour commute to the Bronx where her mother is living in a care facility.

Richard Rosenberg lived at Rivington House from 2004 to 2014 before having to move Uptown to a nursing home in East Harlem near Central Park. He misses his time at Rivington House on the Lower East Side, recalling when musicians and improv groups would perform at the facility and his friendship with the nurses.

“This neighborhood is still so much more vibrant and interesting,” Rosenberg said. “The building, the location — those [are] the things I’d love to see back, but the one thing we probably won’t get are the people.

“It was the people that made this a pleasant experience,” he said. “Everybody was on a first-name basis. We felt like we lived here, and we belonged here, and this was our house.”

Rosenberg said what Allure Group did is “disgusting,” and has “no justification — none whatsoever.”

In a March letter, Councilmember Chin and Borough President Gale Brewer requested that Deputy Mayor Alicia Glen direct the Department of Buildings not to grant any approvals for the building’s residential conversion. Chin and Brewer also urged the Mayor’s Office to schedule the long-promised public meeting between the developers and the community.

“This is especially disheartening,” the two politicians wrote, “since we have yet to see a replacement-in-kind of nursing beds or the full allocation of the proceeds from the sale price to the community.”

De Blasio has promised to create new supported affordable senior housing and nursing home beds nearby to compensate for the lost Rivington House beds. Initially, this project was to be at 30 Pike St., but the plan was changed earlier this year with the affordable units slated for 50 Norfolk St. and the nursing home beds to be at Gouverneur Hospital at 227 Madison St.

Though the deed restriction has already been lifted, Chin and Brewer argued that the conversion from a healthcare facility to a residential building violates the 2008 Lower East Side rezoning. The rezoning allows for residential conversions, but cannot create new noncompliances.

“We lack the confidence that the developer will comply with this rule,” they wrote. “In general, we believe the conversion rules unreasonably burden local infrastructure and day-to-day services, such as on-site garbage collection.”

Rosemary Shields, a nutritionist at Rivington House from 2010 until Allure sold the property to Slate, lamented how the building was designed perfectly for a healthcare facility — though it’s unclear how much has already been gutted.

“This could’ve been turned into so many really wonderful beds for homeless people or for people with dementia or just really people with chronic illnesses,” Shields said. “I mean, the place was perfectly set up.”

The rooms, showers and sinks were all wheelchair accessible, for instance. A partial stop-work order still exists for the building, though permits for interior demolition on the second and third floors were issued by D.O.B.

Shields added that the personalized care at Rivington House — with nurses there 24 / 7 — made a world of difference for patients. Having worked in a variety of facilities, she often depends on nurses who are there 24 hours a day to inform her of patients’ changing eating habits — particularly for patients who may not be able to communicate for themselves anymore.

“I relied a lot on nurses to have nurses’ aides and different people tell me so-and-so stopped eating,” she said.

Shields and others emphasized that a continuum of care in neighborhoods is key, where there are adequate facilities for people of all ages.

“All of us have parents and all of us have bodies that break down every once in a while. So all of us are vulnerable and are going to need healthcare at some point,” said Melissa Aase, executive director of University Settlement. “We know that as people get older and need nursing care, they need to be near their loved ones.

“It’s not planned to be affordable housing, so it doesn’t even serve that need,” she said of Slate’s intentions for the property. “This is a part of gentrification.”

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