For the past decade, the residence hotel on West 23rd Street, a New York character unto itself, has been suspended in a dreary state of endless construction, with a rotating cast of developers struggling to spin this oddity into an upscale boutique hotel.
Even as the pandemic decimates the city’s economy, closing scores of hotels, restaurants and stores, and leaving tens of thousands of New Yorkers unable to pay their rent, the 12-story Chelsea continues to exist in a world unto itself, one that seems to host a seemingly endless cage match where the building’s roughly 50 remaining tenants spar with one another or with the landlord who, in turn, battles with the city.
The story of the renovation of this 19th-century Victorian Gothic landmark (and the former home of Mark Twain, Bob Dylan, Patti Smith and countless other writers and musicians) is one of developers with lofty ambitions that ran headlong into a classic New York predicament: When scorned tenants organise, they can grind a multimillion-dollar project to a halt. And the tenants of the Chelsea Hotel, most of whom have lived there for decades, know how to put up a good fight.
But not all the tenants are opposed to the current plan — at this point, most of them would like to see this over and done with. “This is emblematic of the Chelsea,” said Samuel J Himmelstein, a Manhattan lawyer who represents the Chelsea Hotel tenants association, a faction of residents who would like to see the work completed and the hotel open. “Everything with the Chelsea is major drama.”
The latest plot twist came in January, when the city dropped a lengthy investigation of tenant harassment that had halted construction for 2 1/2 years. With that obstacle removed, the Chelsea’s owners, Ira Drukier, Richard Born and Sean MacPherson, known for their trendy boutique hotels like the Ludlow, the Maritime and the Bowery, resumed work. They plan to open the Chelsea to guests by the end of the year.
This news, however, has not deterred a handful of tenants who say that living conditions have deteriorated since the construction restarted, and they’re willing to keep pushing back as long as necessary. “Like RBG, we’ll persist,” said Debbie Martin, 61, a longtime tenant.
A POWERFUL PIECE OF PAPER
The past few years of the Chelsea Hotel saga have been particularly baffling. In 2018, after receiving a tenant inquiry, the city’s Department of Housing Preservation and Development determined that the hotel needed what is known as a Certification of No Harassment, an approval that developers must get to renovate some types of tenant-occupied buildings.
The demand set construction back for more than two years, delays the developer said cost as much as $30 million, and left tenants living in a work site frozen in time.
A stop-work order was issued, and an investigation found evidence of tenant harassment, prompting a hearing that dragged on until the end of December. That is when the developers unexpectedly revealed a document they had found in city archives that exempted the hotel from needing the certification at all.
Days later, the department dropped the case.
Tenants like Martin who supported the investigation were stunned. “An agency that is supposed to protect us from harassment dropped the case right at the end of the trial,” she said. “This could happen to anybody in the city if it happened to us.”
The tenants association (which is in favour of the renovation) was angry that work had stopped in the first place, blaming the city and their vocal neighbours for pursuing what they saw as a frivolous case. “It was a disgrace,” said Zoe Pappas, 68, the president of the tenants association, which represents 30 residents living in 20 apartments.
The housing department did find evidence of harassment, but it declined to disclose any more information. “While this particular legal challenge has been withdrawn, the city has a broad range of tools to protect New Yorkers from harassment,” Anthony Proia, a department spokesman, said in a statement.
Now that the workers are back, so, too, are the complaints from the tenants who supported the harassment case. Water has been running only cold again. Sometimes, it runs brown too. Susan and Jonathan Berg, who live on the 10th floor, have been disturbed by incessant noise from ventilation fans on the roof. And construction dust keeps blowing into Martin’s apartment. “It’s a different level of awfulness,” she said.
‘A FANTASTIC HAPPY TIME’
Life at the Chelsea was not always a tedious grind set to the sound of hammers and drills. It used to be fun.
Martin and her husband, Ed Hamilton, 60, arrived at the hotel in 1995 from Washington, DC, subletting a musician’s 100-square-foot room. It had no kitchen, and the bathroom was down the hall. They were thrilled to get to live at an iconic address and quickly settled into the community of artists where everyone was invited to everyone else’s party.
The hotel’s eccentric manager and partial owner, Stanley Bard, ran the place according to his own rules, curating tenants as if the hotel were his personal art project. “Stanley Bard ran it like a fiefdom,” said Himmelstein, the lawyer for the tenants association. “The rent was done on a whim. If he liked you, he didn’t raise your rent.”
“He was fabulous, he was crazy,” Susan Berg said of Bard, who died in 2017, a decade after he was ousted from the hotel when new management came in.
Despite its reputation, the Chelsea “wasn’t a hip, noisy drinking spot swarming with people,” said Susan Berg, 65, who moved in with Jonathan Berg, 77, in 1988. (He had lived at the Chelsea since 1975.) “On Thanksgiving, there was often a dinner in the lobby for people who didn’t have a place to go,” she said. “It was a fantastic, happy time.”
About a year and a half after they moved in, Martin and Hamilton upgraded to a 220-square-foot room on the eighth floor, where they still live. Packed with books, art and papers, it has no kitchen, only a sink, and the couple use the bathroom in the vacant apartment next door.
Despite all the drama, Martin can’t imagine giving up her tiny space with a partial view of the Empire State Building and where her husband wrote “Legends of the Chelsea Hotel,” a 2007 book chronicling its history. “This is the only place Ed and I have ever lived in New York,” she said. “I have a bathroom right outside my door, why would I want to have it any other way?”
STALLING TACTICS OR TENANTS’RIGHTS ?
For many residents, the war with the landlord ended in 2013, when the tenants association reached a settlement that delivered its members, representing about half of the building at the time, gut-renovated apartments and other concessions.
But roughly 40 tenants did not join the association, and so did not get the deal. Some did not want the group speaking on their behalf. Martin said she did not want a renovated apartment if it meant squeezing a bathroom into an already tiny space, reducing her living area, or moving to a lower floor where she would lose her light and views.
Some tenants worried that moving or renovating their apartments would compromise their rent-stabilized status, although the developer and the tenants association insist those apartments are still protected by stabilisation laws.
And so, the battle rages on.
Tenant lawsuits and stop work orders paint a picture of a property that has been an unpleasant place to live for years. Residents, who pay monthly rents of about $1,000 to $4,000, have reported mould, asbestos, dust and verbal harassment from the owners. Apartments and hallways have flooded. A tenant shared videos with a reporter from two years ago of water cascading from the ceilings, filling large trash cans and sloshing around in pools on the floor.
Many residents shrug off the dust, noise and water damage as inconveniences that are the cost of living through a renovation — they say that the landlord makes accommodations when necessary. In one case, a tenant was put up in the nearby Chelsea Savoy hotel for months and given a daily food allowance while her apartment was repaired after a pipe burst. These tenants say they’d just like for the work to get done. But others see no reason to back down.
The tenants voicing the complaints have been accused of stalling tactics like calling 311 and starting new rounds of litigation in order to get a stop-work order so the hotel will stay as it is. But Berg sees it differently. “It’s not like we call up and say, ‘We need a stop-work order’ and someone over there runs over,” she said. “I can’t tell you just how much you have to complain in order to get anyone to pay attention.”
Berg said she and her husband had been unable to sleep or open their windows for fresh air because of the constant whirring from the ventilation fans, which she said run day and night. And after Susan Martin complained about the construction dust in her apartment, the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene issued a violation to the landlord and management in late March.
BD Hotels has offered the rent abatement, now at 35%, to all residents, and even offered to renovate the apartments of those who did not accept the 2013 deal, Drukier said. None of the tenants took him up on the renovation offer, he said, but nearly all have rent abatements now.
“Our plans call for no removal of tenants. Period,” Drukier said. “I don’t know quite what they think we’re trying to do, but we’re certainly not trying to get anybody out.”
What the tenants really want is a buyout, according to Drukier; lawyers representing clients in five apartments, including Susan Berg and Martin, made requests for payouts of up to $48 million for the group, he said.
In an email, Leon Behar, a lawyer for those tenants, expressed dismay that confidential discussions were discussed publicly. “The question of buyouts seems to be a red herring drummed up by Drukier to deflect on his systemic harassment” of tenants, he said.
NO ONE IS GOING ANYWHERE
If recent history is any proof, residents of the Chelsea — regardless of what side they are on — are not conflict averse. When another developer, Joseph Chetrit, bought the property in 2011, he wasted no time as he started to evict the 100 or so residents. But he faced unexpectedly fierce opposition, so he abandoned the project in 2013, selling the property to luxury hotelier King & Grove, led by Ed Scheetz. Within months, the tenants association reached a settlement with the new owners, securing renovated apartments, rent abatements and other concessions.
“I put my soul and all my guts into protecting the building,” said Zoe Pappas, the tenants association president, sitting in the first floor one-bedroom apartment she shares with her husband, Nicholas Pappas, 63. Decorated with baroque-style furniture, it has walls covered with paintings and musical instruments. There is a medium grand piano in the living room.
By 2016, Ed Scheetz was out and BD Hotels had bought the building, which it had once managed almost a decade earlier. “They really didn’t know what they were doing,” Drukier said of the previous owners, who became mired in delays, cost overruns and disputes with tenants.
Zoe Pappas describes the current management as “civilised.” It’s a word that she uses often, and that she frequently summons to persuade management to be more accommodating. When she recounted negotiating a per diem with Scheetz for displaced tenants, management wanted to pay $35 a day. She got it raised to $60.
Originally from Romania, Pappas moved into the Chelsea in 1995. Its artsy vibe reminded her of Parisian hotels. “I don’t think there is another building in the United States which has such an extraordinary personality, and I am not referring to the rock ’n’ roll,” Pappas said. “I am referring to the writers.”
But it had its drawbacks. In years past, Pappas would frequently see people passed out in hallways and stairwells. A neighbour across the hall sold drugs, attracting loud, late night customers and occasionally, the police.
These days, her biggest headache is her complaining neighbours, a group she views as rogue obstructionists. “They kept this building with its guts open for almost 10 years,” she said. “There are individuals that are not happy if they don’t create misery around them. It’s a question of control and power and keeping us in this condition.”
AS NEW YORK REOPENS, SO WILL CHELSEA
A hotel that takes 10 years to renovate invites the question: Why keep doing this?
Drukier, the third owner since the renovations began, wakes up most mornings pondering that very same thing, he said.
“It would have been easier in some ways to just walk away,” he said. “Surprisingly, you get attached to the Chelsea.”
The lobby has been restored, with an upright piano in the corner, lush sofas and a large chandelier. The plans include space for two restaurants, drawing rooms, event space, and a rooftop fitness centre and spa. Plans are also underway to reopen El Quijote, the old-school Spanish restaurant next door that closed in 2018 after 88 years of operation and is part of the hotel.
Room rates at the hotel will range from $200 to upward of $600 a night, Drukier said. Paintings by previous tenants that once hung throughout the hotel will be taken out of storage and returned to the walls.
“Even those tenants that don’t like us right now will eventually, I think, be happy that they’re living where they are,” Drukier said.
But Susan Berg is not so certain. “I think it will be much worse,” she said. Hotels bring guests, and guests bring noise.
In 2009, the Jane Hotel, another property by the same development team, attracted so many celebrity partyers that local residents formed a neighbourhood coalition and hired a publicist to tame the situation.
Berg is afraid of a repeat scenario. “The former Chelsea had one sleepy little bar, the El Quijote,” she said. “I think the tenants don’t understand that this will be transformed into a drinking/party spot that is going to open until 4 in the morning, every day.”
But the work is not done yet, its pace slowed by COVID construction protocols. When the hotel does make its splashy reopening, it will do so in a city still recovering from the pandemic, and in a neighbourhood still lacking, perhaps, in tourists and general foot traffic.
“It’s actually exactly what you would have expected of the Chelsea,” Drukier said. “Anything that can go wrong in the Chelsea just goes wrong.”
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