Hell's Kitchen is Burning

With a ravenous market and a pro-development mayor, West Side tenants say they don't stand a chance

But by the time the permits were revoked, the work had been completed, including turning a cellar space into the lower level of a "duplex" apartment, which, according to a 1996 record, was the highest-renting apartment in the building, fetching $2250 for five rooms. (In contrast, rent listed for one of three longtime tenants was $109 for four rooms.) Kinsey's monthly rent roll for the single property was $22,184.30.

Kinsey took the case to the Board of Standards and Appeals, a quasijudicial city agency. There, DOB staunchly defended its revocation of the permits as recently as late March. But in June, DOB offered to restore the permits. "Accordingly," a DOB attorney wrote to Kinsey's lawyer, "your application before the Board of Standards and Appeals will be withdrawn."

Restuccia was stunned. "The owner goes to BSA and DOB starts rolling over? It's very curious. Why is it okay all of a sudden? It's clear that the special district means nothing."

Kalin says ignoring the SCD is just one reaction to a superheated real estate market. Cash offers to get tenants to leave, especially in SROs, are also common. "Buyouts are coming back in a big way," says Kalin. "I have one tenant who was offered $50,000 to leave an SRO, and another $75,000."

SROs have long been a key piece of the Clinton housing stock, though even the 8000 units there now are about half as many as a decade ago. Many SROs have been converted to tourist-class hotels. One of the most famous is the Longacre on West 45th, where Kalin says that only about 40 SRO tenants remain of the more than 100 who lived there in 1995. In the spirit of Disney, the hotel is now known as the Aladdin and is primarily for tourists.

Indeed, SRO tenants were among Hell's Kitchen's first casualties in the 1980s, when landlords converted old hotels to co-ops and condos. Some rousted old tenants by moving in criminals. Others torched buildings. And others relied on unadorned thuggery. Megadeveloper Harry Macklowe used the cover of night, ordering the midnight demolition of four SROs on West 44th Street in 1985.

Ironically, this month Macklowe will open his 26-story luxury high-rise at 50th and Eighth Avenue, complete with terraces, health club, and prewired fiber optics. Alcove studios rent for $1800. Macklowe has named the tower Longacre House.

IN LATE JUNE, a pack of the city's most powerful real estate interests assembled downtown to hear the details of a potentially lucrative scheme: The city was seeking a developer to build housing on Tenth Avenue near 54th Street. The highest bidder would be free to charge market rents for 80 per cent of the apartments, providing 20 per cent were set aside for low-income tenants. Tax breaks were offered. The deal was sweet enough to attract titans such as The Brodsky Organization, Rockrose Development, Harry Macklowe Real Estate Company, Helmsley-Spear, and Donald Zucker to a prebid conference. Bids are due to the department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD) September 30.

HPD's description of the site--close to Midtown and in "one of the most popular and vibrant communities in the City"--might sound like a real estate come-on. To many Clinton residents, it also sounds like the city's commitment to affordable housing has gone down the toilet.

The lots for sale are part of the Clinton Urban Renewal Area (CURA), a square bounded by 50th and 56th streets between Tenth and Eleventh avenues. With 22 acres, including vacant lots and empty buildings, CURA is perhaps the largest parcel of developable city-owned land in Manhattan south of 96th Street--and as such, one of the last areas that can be developed to draw "a large influx of white people," says Kalin.

"Luxury and market-rate apartments are not what urban renewal is supposed to be about," says Cappy Haskins. Haskins moved into a tenement within CURA in 1983 after she and more than two dozen tenants were driven out of a Clinton building by a managing agent who went to jail for his deeds, which included threatening to murder tenants. "HPD's plans are very disturbing." HPD did not return calls for this story.

Tenth Avenue is a prime CURA location, and plans for its development have changed with the mayors. Ed Koch had floated an 80/20 plan for a span of the avenue just blocks south of the site currently up for bid, but it sunk under community opposition. David Dinkins allocated $16 million for a very low­ and moderate-rent development on the site that HPD is now selling. In the middle of his first term, Rudy Giuliani trimmed that to $10 million, and by 1996, he cut money entirely.

Clinton residents say that HPD's current market-rate plans also serve as sort of a shock tactic aimed at forcing the community to move forward on a long-embattled second CURA parcel. That is a turn-of-the-century tenement called The Flats on Eleventh Avenue between 52nd and 53rd streets. Opened as part of the Model Tenement Movement, The Flats featured a day-care center and co-op store on the first floor, along with a courtyard and exterior stairwells to enhance fresh air and light. But since the city took over the building when it declared the urban renewal area in 1969, the 63-unit Flats has dwindled to housing only 13 families. Four of seven floors are boarded up.

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