NEW YORK – These days there is a noticeable fine dust permeating the air throughout this historic landmark hotel. Upon entering his apartment after work, one tenant walked into his bathroom to find that the ceiling had collapsed.
These are the conditions the tenants are living with as the new owner Joseph Chetrit proceeds to turn the Hotel Chelsea into a high-end living space. The hotel workers, members of 32BJ, were fired soon after the purchase, and the demolition work is being done by non-union workers hired by Marge NY Inc., a non union company contracted by Chetrit.
Built between 1883 and 1885, the twelve-story redbrick building was one of the city’s first private apartment cooperatives opened to the public in 1884. In May 2011, the hotel was sold to real estate developer Joseph Chetrit for $80 million dollars. Long-time residents remain in the building, some of them protected by state rent regulations.
Many notable artists, writers and musicians have lived and created some of their finest works while staying at the Chelsea: Arthur Miller, Gore Vidal, Tennessee Williams, Stanley Kubrick, Shirley Clarke, Jimi Hendrix, Bob Dylan, Janis Joplin and many, many others.
Laborers Local 79 has been at the worksite for the past two weeks; they are trying to get the City EPA to investigate the premises for violations of City Building Codes. One of the Local 79 workers expressed why they were there: “We are protesting the construction that is going on in the hotel, they are doing demolition in the building and we are trying to talk to the construction workers, organize the workers.”
The renovations prompted complaints by the remaining tenants of health hazards caused by the construction. These are being investigated by the city’s Buildings Department, which found violations. A Local 79 member said of the non-union workers at the site: “They are not aware of what they are doing. There may be asbestos in the building – we don’t know. The tenants are concerned because of what is going on, concerned for their safety.”
New York City has had a dismal record concerning oversight of construction. There were several fatal accidents in the past several years. As reported in the New York Times, fatal construction accidents have grown at an alarming rate in New York City, rising 61 percent in the year that ended on Sept. 30,  amid a continuing building boom. Many of the 29 victims were Hispanic immigrants working for small contractors in nonunion jobs.
After a fatal crane collapse on the East Side in 2008 killed seven people and injured 24 others, Mayor Bloomberg pushed for the resignation of Patricia J. Lancaster, commissioner of the Buildings Department, who had been in the process of trying to make the department more accountable to the public safety.
In an interview with Zoe Pappas of the Chelsea Hotel Tenants Association and their lawyer Sam Himmelstein on WBAI’s HousingNotebook, they discussed the unsafe renovations and harassing techniques of the new landlord.
Pappas said: “Demolition [documents] shows they are going to demolish the existing walls of the hotel rooms. Another plan was to show the new configuration, but we haven’t seen the plans and you can’t see the plans before they are approved.” This is a major concern of the tenants because it will show whether the tenants may be displaced or not. Last week a tenant was assaulted and his camera confiscated because he was taking pictures of the work being done.
According to press reports, tenant lawyer Himmelstein says that representatives of the owner, the developer Joseph Chetrit, repeatedly rebuff requests for a meeting. “You leave me no alternative but to litigate,” Mr. Himmelstein wrote in an e-mail to the owner’s lawyer last week. “Perhaps your clients will be more reasonable in front of a judge.”
The two sides were scheduled to meet in court on December 16. Pappas remarked, “We are doing it because we have no choice.”