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Unions, Neighborhood Groups Protest East Village Demolition

October 25, 2016  
By Steven Wishnia

New York, NY – A coalition of building-trades unions and East Village community groups protested Oct. 19 on East 11th Street, demanding that Mayor Bill de Blasio stop the planned demolition of five 19th-century apartment buildings so a politically connected developer can build a hotel with nonunion labor.

“This deal is bad on so many levels,” state Senator Brad Hoylman (D-Manhattan) told the crowd of about 100 people. It is demolishing affordable housing, destroying the neighborhood’s character, and breaking the city’s commitment to good jobs and union labor, he added.

Developer David Lichtenstein’s Lightstone Group, which bought the five buildings at 112-120 East 11th St in April for $51.6 million, according to the Real Deal, plans to build a 300-room hotel for Marriott’s Moxy chain, aimed at “millennials” as an alternative to Airbnb.

The buildings contain 72 vacant, formerly rent-stabilized apartments. “We don’t know what happened to the tenants,” said Andrew Berman, head of the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation.

The city Department of Buildings approved a permit for “full demolition” of the buildings on Aug. 4, according to records posted online, but has not yet issued one, according to both Berman and the mayor’s office.

“It’s now or never,” Berman told LaborPress. “All the mayor has to do is intervene. With a snap of his fingers, he could do the right thing.” Because the final permit has not been issued, he said, the city “could still reverse course and landmark the buildings if they wanted to. It is not too late.”

The city Department of Environmental Preservation issued a permit for asbestos work at the site in August, the mayor’s office said. Lightstone has hired New York Insulation—a contractor with a long history of safety violations and wage theft, according to Abraham Hernandez, business agent for Laborers Local 78, which represents about 4,500 asbestos-removal workers in the metropolitan area. 

New York Insulation has been barred from construction work on city public schools since 2008 and from state public-works projects until 2020 for failing to pay workers prevailing wage, according to Local 78. It and its affiliates have been cited for unsafe asbestos abatement by the state Department of Labor at least 125 times since 2006, and more than 150 times since 2000 by the city Department of Environmental Protection. However, the company is regularly hired by developers such as Blackstone and Extell, says Hernandez, and did the asbestos-removal work on converting the former Domino Sugar plant in Brooklyn to apartments.

“The materials cost all the contractors the same, so the way they compete on price is by cheating on the labor and violating the regulations,” he told LaborPress.  

Some of the violations were for “dry removal.” As inhaling even one microscopic asbestos fiber can cause cancer, Hernandez explains, the material being removed must “constantly be wet to keep the fibers down.” For removing asbestos pipe insulation—one of the most dangerous abatement jobs, because the asbestos is “friable,” easily crumbled into powder—the safe method is to completely encapsulate the pipe. But New York Insulation, to save time, will “just cut it and put it in a bag with a bit of water,” he says.

The five buildings were built in the Beaux-Arts style between 1887 and 1892. In 2008, the Department of City Planning stated that the Landmarks Preservation Commission had identified the 11th Street block as one of “four potential new historic districts” in the East Village and Lower East Side that “appear to be eligible” for designation as landmarks. Two other buildings on the block have been designated: Webster Hall, by the city in 2008, and the New Deal-era Cooper Station Post Office, as a state and national historic site.

In June, after the 11th Street buildings were sold to Lichtenstein and plans for the hotel were announced, the Society for Historic Preservation and three other groups wrote to the Landmarks Commission, urging it to protect the buildings before they were torn down. “The city refused to respond,” Andrew Berman says.

The commission did respond in August that the buildings did not have enough “architectural significance” to qualify as a historic district. “The Landmarks Preservation Commission makes independent decisions based on its criteria and expertise,” mayoral spokesperson Melissa Grace told LaborPress.

“The only thing that has changed in the past eight years is the owner,” Andrew Berman told the crowd, calling Lichtenstein a “political ally” of de Blasio.

Lichtenstein is estimated by Forbes magazine to be worth $1.4 billion, despite the 2009 bankruptcy of a hotel chain he owned. He is a prominent contributor to  Democratic candidates, hosting a $2,700-a-seat fundraiser for Hillary Clinton in January and giving $50,000 to the Nassau County Democratic Committee in April through a subsidiary. That contribution was solicited by de Blasio’s chief fundraiser, Ross Offinger, according to the Albany Times-Union. The mayor appointed Lichtenstein to the New York City Economic Development Corporation in June 2015.

Assemblymember Deborah Glick (D-Manhattan) accused the mayor of betraying his progressive principles, of having “an administration that says one thing and does another.” What is progressive, she said, is saving affordable housing that already exists, and preserving neighborhoods and good-paying union jobs.

“Enough is enough,” John Skinner, president and political director of Local 46 Metallic Lathers & Reinforcing Iron Workers, told the crowd. “Why is there no union labor on affordable housing? Labor has come to the table and we have been snubbed.”

The issues on 11th Street are “pretty simple stuff,” he told LaborPress afterwards. No more exploited labor, union jobs, and getting the community involved in the Uniform Land Use Review Procedure “before you start.”

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