A crowd of neighborhood activists gathered this week in front of Rivington House as a reminder of their fight to have the building returned to its former use as a nursing home. The Lower East Side structure is in the process of being converted into luxury housing following a controversial lifting of a deed restriction and sale of the property to a developer.
Activists chalked the sidewalk with messages critical of the mayor and gentrification, hung ribbons with messages of support for nursing home’s former residents, and eventually surrounded the building with people and caution tape; ultimately, they also promised to dig in for a much longer fight.
Even though Allure Group, which sold Rivington House to Slate Property Group in 2015, was forced to give handful of Lower East Side non-profits grants and to pay fines to the city, neighborhood residents believe that’s not enough—they want the nursing home back. “Neighbors to Save Rivington House has always advocated for the return of the building and that’s still our stance,” Debra Jeffreys-Glass, an organizer with the group, told Curbed the day before the demonstration. “No matter what the little pieces are, there has not been a replacement for the 219 beds in Rivington House.”
The lack of beds for the sick and elderly in the Lower East Side was a constant theme of criticism from the assembled crowd, who saw the Rivington House debacle as a piece of a larger policy of neglect towards the elderly. Sally Roldan-Villegas, a 45-year LES resident, told Curbed that her mother, who raised her in the neighborhood, now lives in a nursing home near Co-op City in the Bronx, a two-hour drive for her daughter and friends to visit her. “If she was in the community, she’d be more comfortable and happier, and she wouldn’t mind being a resident in a nursing home,” said Roldan-Villegas, noting that she’d seen the number of nursing homes in the neighborhood drop over the years to the point where just two remain.
Richard Rosenberg, a 10-year resident of Rivington House until 2014, echoed Roldan-Villegas. “I’m really angry and upset,” Rosenberg said. Despite his new nursing home in East Harlem being an “ostensibly good” location, Rosenberg said he missed his old neighborhood. “The people here, I miss the most,” he said. “The people here are a thousand times nicer than the people where I am now.”
The Department of Buildings has given permits for interior demolition to begin on the building, but Paul Leonard, the chief of staff for City Council member Maragaret Chin, directed Curbed to a letter from Chin and Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer to Deputy Mayor Alicia Glen, insisting Rivington House should not be converted into residential use. Specifically, those officials suggested that a residential building would place more stress local needs like garbage collection. They also argue that while the building itself predates current zoning regulations, its conversion to the type of residential space Slate wants to create violates the area’s 2008 zoning agreement because of those infrastructure burdens.
According to Leonard, the question of whether to approve the conversion is at the discretion of the Department of City Planning, and the council member’s office has been talking with lawyers from the city about ways to get the building back to its previous use. “Considering how the deed restriction was lifted and the transaction was allowed to go through, we’re still exploring every opportunity legally that the city has to take back this property,” Leonard said.
And while there was plenty of anger about the situation, K. Webster of Neighbors to Save Rivington House said she was hopeful that keeping the fight in the news could help convince the companies that own the property to reconsider.
“I don’t think anyone wants to make a killing this way, not in their heart of hearts,” she told Curbed. “And if you’re that far damaged then we need to lead you. Zora Neale Hurston once said ‘You don’t mock a man for being blind, you lead him,’ so that’s what we’re trying to do.”