A building on West 58th Street – overlooking Central Park on a pocket of prime Manhattan land at the park's south end dubbed “Billionaires Row” – has become the subject of heated tensions between the city and residents battling Mayor Bill de Blasio’s efforts to turn the former Park Savoy hotel into a homeless shelter.
But according to Michael Fischer, the representative for the W 58 Coalition, which formed last year to push back against the development, it has nothing to do with economic status, fears of rising crime or a drop in real estate value.
“We support homeless shelters; we just don’t support unsafe homeless shelters," he said. "I cannot knowingly support the opening of a building that is a dangerous firetrap, while rich building owners get rich off something that could potentially kill people.
"The building is plagued with serious fire and safety issues that could cause a loss of life.”
The proposed facility would house 140 men and is part of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s 2017 “Turn the Tide” campaign to reduce homelessness citywide. The campaign’s plan entails establishing 90 new homeless shelters across the five boroughs comprising New York City, in an effort to squash the rate of homelessness.
That rate surged 115 percent between 1994 and 2014, city statistics show. From 2005 to 2015, rents are reported to have increased by 18.4 percent while incomes crept up just 4.8 percent, contributing to the proliferation of people unable to afford adequate housing.
But some residents question the choice of the old Park Savoy. It's a nine-story high-rise with only one exit, dead-end stairways, narrow and winding stairs and no landings, Fischer asserted, stressing that in the event of an emergency, occupants would be cornered. He accused the city of “hiding behind an inapplicable grandfathering provision which excuses 100-year-old buildings from having to comply with the current laws and statutes.”
Furthermore, Fischer pointed to a tragedy in a Harlem public housing building last month, in which four young children and two adults perished after a fire broke out and family members could not make their way to the fire escapes or hallways. He said the building was “never required to be outfitted with two emergency exits that were accessible to residents in the event of a fire.”
In legal affidavits submitted by the W 58 Coalition as part of its petition to stop the city from opening the shelter in the old hotel, retired Fire Department Capt. Robert Kruper agreed that the building, as it stands, is a “firetrap,” and he declared that it “should not be occupied by anyone without major improvements.”
Robert Skallerup, former deputy commissioner of the Department of Homeless Services (DHS) and former Manhattan borough commissioner of the city's Department of Buildings, cited a “disregard for basic life safety” that's "one of the most irresponsible undertakings by any New York City administration in recent memory.”
Yet in late April, Fischer and his team were dealt a legal blow after Manhattan Supreme Court Judge Alexander Tisch rebuffed their argument that the building was hazardous. The judge ultimately said it's up to city agencies and the Fire Department to make a determination about safety.
The Fire Department and the Department of Buildings have given the 58th Street shelter the green light, and documentation from city officials insists that the facility “meets all relevant regulatory/legal requirements” and says that the “insinuation that (the city) would intentionally put clients in harm’s way is insulting and fails to recognize the regulatory standards.”
As part of the fire protection plan, the city is said to have upgraded the sprinkler system, installed additional smoke detectors and upgraded room doors to improve safety.
Yet Fischer contends it is far from sufficient.
As of early May, an appeals judge briefly halted anyone moving into the controversial building, as the W 58 Coalition is currently disputing the trial court’s mandate and intend to file an appeal of the decision with the Appellate Division. If the court extends the stay, the City will not be allowed to open the shelter until the appeal is decided around September or October.
Nonetheless, the city is confident that it will soon resume as planned, and that the facility will have 24-7 security and provide vocational training to the men in need.
“We remain focused on opening this site as soon as possible so that we can provide high-quality shelter and employment services to hard-working New Yorkers experiencing homelessness as they get back on their feet,” said Arianna Fishman, a spokeswoman for the Department of Homeless Services (DHS). “We are confident that the court will again recognize our vital need for these additional beds and look forward to opening our doors at this location.”
To date, more than half of the scheduled 90 shelter sites have been determined and 23 are operational.
“The city has a desperate need to shelter individuals, as well as a responsibility to ensure that everyone is safe in the event of an emergency. Throughout this process, I have worked with the Fire Department, Department of Homeless Services, and Department of Buildings to address any issues that may arise regarding the building's safety,” Council Member Keith Powers told Fox News. “I entrust the courts to make an appropriate determination on the safety of the shelter and will support the decision that is made.”
Representatives for the Fire Department did not respond to a request for comment, and City Hall deferred the issue to the Department of Homeless Services.
While de Blasio’s team is stressing the “aggressive action” the mayor has taken to break the four-decade “trajectory of growth” in homelessness, some outfits have put a more pessimistic tag on the initiative.
A new report released by the Coalition for the Homeless in April asserted that homeless rates had soared 10 percent a year since de Blasio took the helm in 2014; and that as of January, New York City had reached "yet another dismal milestone in the history of modern mass homelessness.”
“An all-time record 63,839 men, women and children slept in shelters each night. The new peak was fueled by a dramatic increase in the number of homeless single adults – a figure that has been growing by an average of 10 percent per year since Mayor de Blasio took office,” the report said. “The number of single adults in shelters has more than doubled in the past decade, and exceeded 18,000 individuals for the first time in January 2019.”
And Fischer stands by his argument that the 58th Street project is only perpetuating a callousness and carelessness toward the homeless.
“The mayor told everyone that he was going to open homeless shelters wherever he wants, whenever he wants. He has made it clear that he likes the optics of a shelter backing up to a wealthy building,” he insisted. “The mayor’s only motive for not relocating this shelter to a safer building is to make a political statement. He is putting politics ahead of potentially saving lives.”