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Eyeing the Wrecking Ball

Razing hell: the ruins of a midtown apartment building
photo: Kate Lacey

Dorothy O'Leary lost a lifetime of moments when the wrecking ball tore into her midtown apartment last October. Most of the things destroyed, like her wedding album, were irreplaceable. Other valuables, as she recalls them today, just evoke the contentment of 40 years lived in the three-room apartment that was her home.

"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.

Alarm bells were ringing, but no one seemed to hear them. On October 20, the tenants received a note from their landlord. "Please be advised," it read, "that the building . . . is being demolished." The note said they had until November 7 to contact Ragusa to arrange to move their belongings. Little did anyone know that the building would be destroyed in just over a week.

At around the same time, Senator Krueger caught wind of the building's woes, and had called DOB and the Department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD) repeatedly, she said, but with little result. Finally, something she saw—she had started to make a habit of passing 249 East 45th every day on her way to work—got the city's attention. Krueger said that four days after the notice of demolition went out to tenants, she witnessed "at least four men" removing materials, including windows and window frames, and throwing them into a dumpster. She called the police, who ordered the work stopped when it became clear the crew had no permit to demolish.

From that point forward, according to a source at DOB, "everyone had concerns with the landlord." When the building was finally demolished, said the source, "we had a staff sitting by the building, which is unusual for such a small job. There were indications that the landlord might not abide by the rules." The tenants in 251 said they were particularly concerned that the landlord would seek to destabilize their building as the wrecking crew demolished the other.

According to Jerry Mazzei, who carried out the demolition of 249, he never received orders from Slinin to damage the other building.

Legal Services' Cohen also became involved at that time, and is now helping the tenants of 251 with their requests for repairs. The case goes to housing court on March 16.

But for those who lived at 249—several of whom, four months later, have not found new homes—the city response came too late.

"I wish they had found us a month earlier," Krueger said, adding that the demolition hints at problems with the rules governing landlords. "Those people in 249 lost everything they owned."


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