The sour scent of decaying rodent in Randel Stubbs's apartment might not have been a shocker in the dilapidating Harlem of the '70s, when negligent landlords were rampant. But in Harlem's millennium boom, which finds yuppies, buppies, JAPs, and BAPs elbowing each other for space in concierge buildings, it's the kind of problem that can cause a major stink for developers and the city's Housing Preservation Department (HPD).
The funk is getting especially thick for Suna/Levine, Inc., the Queens-based development team responsible for building the one-and-a-half-year-old, heavily HPD-subsidized Renaissance Plaza co-ops at 116th Street and Lenox Avenue, home to Stubbs and the dead mouse apparently stuck in his wall. Stubbs is one of scores of shareholders who have battled rodents, a temperamental heating system, and disguised hairline cracks in their walls and have been forced to employ sticks, books, and other props to hold windows up and doors open. Tenants describe Suna/Levine as non-responsive or extremely slow to react, and Stubbs says HPD has been downright "arrogant and nonchalant" about the situation.
Structural concerns are only an addition to the nightmare of bad business deals shareholders say were left when Suna/Levine turned over the prime Harlem property to residents in January 2001. The board of directors found themselves in a two-year deal with Urban Metro, owned by Stuart Suna, which required intensive legal wrangling to undo, says board member Darrell Wheeler. Urban Metro had cost thousands more annually than the newly hired independent company, he says. They later faced union workers picketing the building, protesting a deal originally struck with Suna/Levine. "We walked into more poo-poo than a little bit," says Wheeler. "We were never given records of all the deals they bound us to."
Chalking up the mice to debris from a massive move-in of residents and "this being New York City," Stuart Suna, co-owner of the development firm, says the company is willing to make "reasonable repairs," but "obviously" not problems caused by a year of people living in the units. Other problems, such as soaring legal fees to get out of the management deal or negotiate with the union, were a result of shareholders lacking savvy.
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"These people are homeowners nowmany of them are first-time owners. They are not familiar with this set of responsibilities," says Suna, referring to issues like mismanagement of the heating system and the extermination problems. Yet Suna says the company chose to come to Harlem obviously to make a profit, but also because he believes in bringing affordable, solid housing to "challenged" neighborhoods.
Tempered comments aren't enough for protesting shareholders who are in rare form now that Suna/Levine is at the beginning of a crucial approval process to build another city-subsidized project just south of the Renaissance. That project needs the nod from Community Board 10, the Manhattan Borough President's Office, the City Planning Commission, and the City Council.
Using that to their advantage, residents packed a normally sparse Community Board 10 Housing and Land Use Committee meeting last week where Suna/Levine was presenting. With Coach purses and briefcases in hand, residents carried placards in the shape of rats, with slogans like "Harlem Deserves Better." Their outrage lay somewhere between protecting their investment in this new middle-class community and defending Harlem from the damage of haphazard gentrification. "Don't let them bilk you again,"shareholder Louise Kirstel warned the community board members.
Suna/Levine received the one-square-block of land for the Renaissance for $1 per plot as part of HPD's Anchor program, which offers developers a crack at major projects in struggling communities through extremely low-interest loans, subsidies now worth millions, and the opportunity to own commercial space on the ground floor of the sites. The company received both the Renaissance land and designation for the next project (tentatively called the Orleans) in 1995. While HPD wasn't able to release the number of companies vying for the land before deadline, officials say Suna/Levine was the only company then able to bring together the financing for a major deal in Harlem.
The loss of a project like this would not be small for Suna/Levine. The Renaissance has brought the company strong income from the commercial space. And the next project will be more upscale than the Renaissance, requiring 75 percent of shareholders to earn about $102,000or 165 percent of the area median incomeand will likely draw even better retail clients. Renaissance shareholders, who were told they would have upscale clients in their commercial space, including a health club, ended up with a supermarket, much despised Popeye's Chicken and Biscuits, Dunkin' Donuts, and Baskin-Robbins, as well as an Ashley Stewart clothing for plus-sized women (which, according to a local joke, complement each other well).
Until now elected officials have been less than responsive to residents. While the attorney general's office did a walk-through of some apartments, asking Suna/Levine to make minor changes, officials like Councilmember Bill Perkins and Manhattan Borough President C. Virginia Fields have been reluctant to act until they heard more from the Renaissance board. To date, they've been receiving letters mostly from individuals in the building. "If it turns out there are real problems, and they can't fix it, we will just go forward with someone else," says Perkins.
Lee Chong, the housing representative for Fields's office, says she would like to see a full survey of the building completed by Suna/Levine to be sure the complaints are not "aberrations" by a few disgruntled residents. If the problems are proven to be true, then Fields would not likely support another project before things are fixed.
Still, politicians are not apt to be quick to turn on Suna/Levine, which has considerable political clout. Suna is an owner of Silvercup Studios in Queens and has developed dozens of projects for HPD throughout the city. HPD Anchor program director Syreeta McFadden said at the community board meeting she "felt comfortable" moving ahead with the project. However, she refused comment the next day, and HPD spokeswoman Carol Abrams responded in a short e-mail, saying HPD is monitoring the development team and is aware of the shareholders' concerns. Many tenants have expressed rage at HPD, which was meant to be a development partner in the Renaissance, for not overseeing the building practices.
Community Board 10's land use committee passed a resolution denying support for the project and the full community board will vote at a meeting February 5. The attorney general's office will also make another visit to the building next week.
After months of activity, shareholders saw a glimmer of progress following the meeting, in a flurry of phone calls between Suna/Levine, residents, and area pols, which seems likely to result in an official survey of the building's problems. "We'll see if the politicians are in their pockets," says one resident.
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