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"I had just bought a brand-new comforter set," says the 67-year-old O'Leary, whose brother and daughter also lived in rent-controlled apartments at 249 East 45th Street. "I was about to redo my bedroom." O'Leary lives with her sister now, and has little hope she will find a new apartment at a price she can afford.
"Don't get me wrong, my sister has been wonderful," she says. "I had just gotten very used to living on my own."
Today, anxiety still hangs over the corner of East 45th Street and Second Avenue, agitating the tenants who live at 251, next door to the demolished building. Several residents told the Voice they believed the owner of the two buildings, Edward Slinin, hopes to demolish 251 as well, sitting as it does on a valuable chunk of midtown real estate, a few blocks from the United Nations. Their home has survived this long, say the residents, thanks to the intervention of State Senator Liz Krueger, who took up the tenants' cause.
According to Karen Schlueter, a tenant in 251, Sheldon Shainkowitz, who helps manage the buildings, called her in mid October, telling her she should take a buyout offer, because there were plans to demolish the building. "He said, 'We don't want you to wind up like the people next door,' " says Schlueter, who noted that 249 was still standing at the time.
In early November, after 249 was destroyed, Schlueter says, Shainkowitz visited her apartment and made a buyout offer, which she refused. She claims he told her she was living in a "fantasy world," and he said the landlord had already applied for permits to demolish the building.
Many residents of the two buildings interviewed for this article have asked to remain anonymous, most citing fear of the owner and his representatives. Edward Slinin told the Voice in a phone call that he was not the owner of the buildings and knows nothing about them. Slinin also said he had never heard of Shainkowitz or Jerry Ragusa, who tenants say also managed the buildings. Neither responded to calls for comment.
City documents list Slinin, who also owns a limousine service, as either the owner or the manager of East 45th Development LLC, the corporation that owns the buildings.
"This is a classic case of building emptying," charged Susan Cohen of Legal Services for NYC, who represents four of the six tenants who live in 251. "In phase one, the landlord neglects repairs. Then he leaves it without a superintendent, and lets the building get filthy. Phase two, the landlord does shoddy work and leaves a mess, and then makes a buyout offer."
Whether this pattern fits 251 or not, the Department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD) has recorded 78 violations against East 45th Development LLC, which acquired the building in 2001. Of these violations, 34 were so-called C-class, the most serious. Tenants complained throughout this winter of not receiving heat or hot water, and of a hallway window left broken and open for weeks, until a DOB building inspector was able to force it shut.
But it was the way that 249 came down that most chilled the tenants next door.
On August 4, 2003, after a ceiling on the ground floor collapsed, the fire department evacuated the tenants. The next day, the city issued a vacate order, citing cracks in the brickwork of the building's facade. A few days later, tenants, accompanied by a DOB inspector, were given a little more than an hour to retrieve whatever valuables and clothes they could and get out.
Dorothy O'Leary, who suffers from glaucoma, climbed to the fourth floor that day with her flashlight. "I got my checkbook and a few important papers. And some clothes." O'Leary thought her eviction was temporary. She says Ragusa told her not to worry and that the building would be fixed. "I believed him," she said.
But a DOB spokesperson said that between August and October Slinin never applied for the necessary permits to make repairs on the building, despite the fact that the cracking facade violated building codes. In September, Slinin's lawyer sent the evacuated tenants an affidavit for them to sign pertaining to a case the city initiated against him. "[The owner] took reasonable care of the building and responded reasonably to any issues that I may have had as a tenant," it read. According to one tenant lawyer, none of the residents signed it.
After another inspection on October 6, DOB issued an emergency declaration, saying the building was in "imminent peril" and recommended that the owner fix the failing facade and "immediately remove [the] bearing wall at front only."
Still, nothing happened. Charles Carnival, O'Leary's brother and a former superintendent of the building, said that, acting on an old habit, he used to go by the building every day and sit on a nearby stoop. "There was never ever work going on," he said.